Bhutan is a country that felt very different than other countries we've been to. Here we didn't see much influence of Western culture. They measure their prosperity by Gross National Happiness, an index of psychological wellbeing. This is very different than Gross National Product, which bases its calculation on material wellbeing.
The people are warm, laidback and they genuinely seem content. You won't see anyone driving fast or in a hurry here. We can see why the Buddhist country is referred to as "The last Shangri-La!"
How the process works
Tourism is controlled and you can only visit the country with an official guide. We usually have a rough plan and go with the flow when exploring a country. But, in this instance, we had a packed itinerary of sightseeing that took some getting used to.
Although we didn't have much freedom to explore the country on our own, it wasn't like we were under constant watch. We were able to explore the cities and enjoy downtime at the zen hotels we stayed at. It was an amazing opportunity to be shown around such a beautiful and unique country with a guide. Especially in a place with such a deep culture.
The process to travel to Bhutan can be easy with the right tour group. We chose Himalayan Glacier, since we booked our Nepal trek through them. It was easy to combine both of our trips. They handled all of our VISA work and our package included transportation, government approved A and B category hotels, attractions, food, a knowledgable guide from Bhutan and a driver.
Tips to customize your trip
Although you won't have much freedom to explore the country on our own, there are ways you can customize your trip to make it the best fit for you. We we wish knew these tips to customize our trip beforehand!
1. You will see A LOT of temples & fortresses, if you're not on a hiking tour
The temples are beautiful. There are no photos allowed inside but when you walk through the door you will see huge ornate and colourful statues. The fortresses are very well preserved but are quite similar to each other. After a while, it can start to feel a little repetitive even though each place has a special meaning.
Request some folk cultural activities to switch it up. We were excited to have a hot stone bath and try archery, their national sport.
2. Request to vary the restaurants during your trip
The food becomes quite repetitive, since each restaurant is designed for tourists and consists of a buffet with chicken, rice, vegetables, and occasionally fish. It was very similar for both lunch and dinner. In hindsight, we would have asked to switch up one of our buffet meals each day for a la carte, even if it increased our cost. Ask your tour company to include some restaurants with a menu.
3. Verify what hotels you are staying at
We stayed at Namgay Heritage Hotel in the capital city of Thimphu, Kichu Wangdu Resort by a remote river, and Gangtey Palace, a palace hotel in Paro. We luckily loved all of them and each provided a unique experience.
We liked our stay at Kichu Wangdu Resort so much, we we wished we had an extra day there to relax by the river and enjoy the scenery. We recommend taking a one day break from activities to relax and enjoy Bhutan's natural beauty. Try being like Siddhartha for the day and meditate by a tranquil river!
4. Request free time to explore shops and markets
Check out the shops and the handicraft stores. There are also local food markets where you can see locals shopping for all the different types of produce. There's a lot of shopping to be had! Just be wary of the overpriced stores. If you see a souvenir you like, price check it at other stores. We bought a traditional wooden rice wine cask and the price varied from store to store.
Top Tip to make the most out of your experience: ask which historical attractions and sights you'll be seeing in advance, so you can do prior research. Buddhism has a lot of history and information to digest. You will be better prepared and able to ask deeper questions if you have some previous knowledge. Bhutan is officially recognized as a Buddhist country, so reading the 'Teaching of Buddha' will also help prepare you for your visit. We wish we did!
Our highlights in Bhutan
Tigers Nest Monastery
The most famous landmark in Bhutan, Tiger's Next Monastery, is perched cliffside at 3,120 meters elevation. It's a remarkable sight to see. To get to the monastery you'll need to ascend 600m up the mountain on a dirt path. The last section includes stairs that will take you to the entrance of the Tiger's Nest.
Start your hike early as it will be less crowded and not as hot.
Hot Stone Bath
Oo lala! A hot stone bath is a traditional healing treatment that's been used for ages in Bhutan. It was a very relaxing experience and a great way to wind down after a day of sightseeing. A hot stone bath is prepared by heating up river stones in a fire until they're red hot and placing them in your bath filled with fresh river water.
Artemesia leaves, which are known to have various health benefits, are scattered in the tub. It can get REALLY hot and you'll need to take some cooling down periods so you don't faint in the tub (we heard that actually happened!). Hot stone baths are said to have healing properties from the release of the minerals into the water. Don't worry, the hot stones are separated in a wooden barrier, so you won't burn yourself!
One our our favourite and unexpected historical attractions was Punakha, a town where you'll see decorated phalluses (penises) painted on walls and tons of phallus trinkets. It was surprising to see this in a traditional country, but these phalluses have a spiritual origin.
Lama Drukpa Kuenley was an enlightened Buddhist Master in the 1400s who used the phallus as a "flaming thunderbolt" weapon, symbolizing the discomfort that society experiences when facing the truth. Today Buddhists from all over the world come to the Chime Lhakhang temple to pray for the survival and the health of their children. Women who wish to have children walk around the temple at least three times carrying a huge wooden phallus.
It was a twist from the traditional sites we had seen. We highly recommend it!
Travelling to Bhutan isn't cheap. The government requires tourists to pay between $200 USD - $250 USD per person/day depending on the season. This covers your guide, driver, attraction admission, transportation, meals, and hotels. If you want to upgrade your hotels, you'll have to budget more money. We spent about $330 USD per person/day for our Himalayan Glacier tour and stayed at beautiful and unique hotels.
We hope you enjoy this wonderfully unique country as much as we did!