Bhutan is a remarkable country in its own ways. The mystical kingdom of Bhutan with its untouched surroundings veiled by the Himalayas is the closest to a utopia on Earth. The 7 days we spent in Bhutan, gave us the opportunity to explore the cultural heart of Bhutan, making memories that we will cherish for the lifetime.
We visited Bhutan in October last year, which is one of the best times to visit Bhutan. September to November is a great time as the days are mildly sunny and nights are usually cooler. March to May is also great because of the less humid weather ideal for exploring Bhutan on foot.
How to reach Bhutan?
Bhutan can be reached both by road and by airways. There are a few Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines flight from Delhi and/or from Kolkata to Paro every week.
Another way to reach Bhutan is to travel on the train till NJP (New Jalpaiguri) railway station at Siliguri and then hire a cab to enter Bhutan via Phuentsholing.
With the exception of visitors from India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, all other visitors traveling to Bhutan need a visa.
If you are flying in, you can obtain the permits at the Paro airport and if you are driving it, then you can get the permits at the Immigration Office at Phuentsholing.
We landed at Bagdogra airport and needed a ride to enter Bhutan via Phuentsholing. So we chose an Indian tour operator based in Jaigon – JD Travels as Indian cars are allowed to enter Bhutan with valid car permits. If you are looking for an India based tour operator, I highly recommend JD Travels.
For citizens of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives
Citizens of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives can obtain a permit at the port of entry on producing a valid passport with a minimum of 6 months validity. Indian nationals may also use their Voters Identity Card (VIC) if they don’t have a valid passport.
You need to submit the immigration form along with 2 passport size photographs and photocopy of your ID proof like Passport/Voter ID card. You also need to show your itinerary and the confirmation of hotel bookings for your initial stay in Bhutan.
Update – Recently there has been some news that Bhutan is planning to levy a Sustainable Development Fee on the citizens of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. It is expected to come into effect from July 2020.
For citizens of any other country
Citizens of all other countries must obtain a visa clearance prior to entering Bhutan. Visas are processed through an online system by your licensed Bhutanese tour operator directly or through a foreign travel agent.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan governs the tourism sector of Bhutan and has set a Minimum Daily Package rate for travelers that must be paid in US dollars prior to arrival in Bhutan.
If you are thinking whether Bhutan is worth it or not, check out my post 15 Photos to Inspire You to Visit Bhutan for some inspiration, or keep reading this post.
Top Places to visit in Bhutan
Bhutan offers a ton of scenic beauty that will blow your mind once you set foot here. One trip is all it takes to start considering the possibility of settling down here post-retirement like us. Anyways, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If you are looking to make the most out of your trip, here is a complete guide to all the amazing places in Bhutan that you shouldn’t miss.
The ornate Bhutan Gate is the first thing that you will notice while sorting out your immigration papers in Phuentsholing if you choose to travel by road. If you are a photography enthusiast, you will quickly notice the cultural shift on both sides of the gate.
People often travel up to Phuentsholing for a day and go back as you don’t need any kind of visa to enter Phuentsholing.
Apart from the Bhutan Gate landmark, Phuentsholing’s Karbandi Monastery and Zangtopelri Buddhist temple are famous with the tourists. Karbandi monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in Bhutan, built by Ashi Phuntsho Choden, the Royal Grandmother in 1967. It is believed that childless couples are blessed with children here.
We spent the night at the Hotel Palm in Phuentsholing and started early the next day to reach Thimphu.
Being the capital, Thimphu is one of the largest cities in Bhutan. The route to Thimphu is very scenic and passes through a couple of waterfalls. Only 147 km away from Phuentsholing, Thimphu showcases the rich heritage of Bhutan through its traditional folklore designed houses. You will find the residents wearing their National dresses in their everyday life.
While entering the city of Thimphu, you will come across another gate – an example of intricate craftsmanship and beautiful wood painting along with a huge painting of the current King and Queen of Bhutan, welcoming you to the city.
One of the places of importance in Thimphu is the National Memorial Chorten – a stupa built at the city center in memory of third Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and is dedicated to World Peace.
This stupa is different than others as it doesn’t enshrine human remains but only the Druk Gyalpo’s photo in a ceremonial dress adorns a hall on the ground floor. The Chorten was conceived keeping in one thought in mind – to build a Chorten “to represent the mind of the Buddha”.
The National Textile Museum and the nearby handicraft market are two other places in Thimphu that you shouldn’t miss. In the National Textile Museum, you can learn more about the various textiles used in the dresses of different regions in Bhutan, especially the National dress code of Bhutan – Gho, and Kira.
Thimphu fully reflects the culture of Bhutan through its literature, customs, dress code, music, and dance. The Thimphu market is one of the biggest markets of Bhutan where you will find a ton of souvenir shops. One item that I found in all the shops, is the wooden phallus in different shapes and sizes.
Phalluses are a common sight in Bhutan. They symbolize good luck, promote fertility and harmony, and ward off evil spirits. They are often painted in and on the building walls, displayed on the headgear of Atsaras (masked clowns), and even used as scarecrows. A traditional housewarming ritual involves lifting a basket of wooden phalluses onto the roof of the new home.
If you are interested to watch the Bhutanese flag down ceremony at one of the important landmarks in Thimphu, then head to Tashichho Dzong in the evening. It is a Buddhist monastery and fortress built on the western bank of the Wang Chu river. It acts as the seat of Bhutan’s government as well as houses a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha and other protective deities.
Tashichho Dzong means the “fortress of the glorious religion.” An important mask dance known as Cham dance is performed in the courtyards of Tashichho Dzong that is a sight to behold. We visited Tashichho Dzong on the eve before the festival and only got a glimpse of the monks practicing the dance.
The Tsenden Boutique become our home for our duration in Thimphu.
The next day, as you drive towards the outskirts of the city, you will catch a glimpse of a huge Buddha statue sitting atop a hill. The Buddha point is one of the pride and joy of the city as it attracts a huge crowd every day even before its completion. The Buddha statue sitting on a gilded meditation hall, unbeknownst to many people, contains 125,000 small Buddha statues inside it.
If you have more time on hand than surely visit the Cheri Monastery and the Motithang Takin Preserve. The Motithang Taking Preserve is a wildlife preserve area for Takin, a large species of hoofed mammals of the subfamily Caprinae found in the eastern Himalayas which is the Nationa animal of Bhutan.
On the way to Punakha, we stopped at the Dochula Pass – a mountain pass in the snow-covered Himalayas within Bhutan connecting Punakha and Thimphu. Dochula Pass, at 10171ft, offers an amazing 360-degree view of the Himalayas on a clear day which we were not lucky to witness ourselves.
However, it is also famous for the 108 memorial stupas known as Druk Wangyal Chortens located on the top of the pass. It’s built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother. The memorial stupas are dedicated to the 108 Bhutanese soldiers who died in 2003 battle fighting the Indian rebels.
The 108 memorial stupas are just beside Bhutan’s first Royal Botanical park – Lampelri, which is home to 46 species of Rhododendron flowers. After the stupas, a temple known as the Druk Wangyel Lhakhang was built with the backdrop of the pristine forest and the snow-capped mountains. The temple was built to celebrate the 100 years of the monarchy in Bhutan.
Only 86 km away from Thimphu, Punakha is the former capital of Bhutan and has the largest and most beautiful dzong in the country – the Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang Dzong which means the “palace of great happiness.”
Built amidst the mountains near the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers, the dzong looks like a painting from afar. The most impressive thing about the Punakha Dzong is that it was built without the use of any nails. The inside of the Dzong is as impressive as the outside.
This Dzong allows tourists to enter inside all the way up to the Kuenrey under the supervision of a guide. The guide accompanying you will tell you about all the different sections of the Dzong, the stories and facts associated with it.
This is where the current King of Bhutan, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his beautiful wife, the Queen of Bhutan Jetsun Pema got married in 2011.
Another great thing to explore in Punakha is the 160 meters long suspension bridge connecting the villages of Shengana, Samdingkha, and Wangkha to Punakha Dzong. There is a path beside the Dzong within the campus, that leads straight towards the Suspension bridge.
This hanging bridge in Punakha is draped with prayer flags all along and provides a panoramic view of the surroundings, perfect for bird watching and nature photography. Not to mention the panic attacks that it gave me as the bridge sways a bit due to the strong winds from the flowing river beneath.
We stayed the night at the aesthetically pleasing riverside Damchen resort before heading towards Paro the next day.
On our way to Paro, we visited the Chimi Lhakhang monastery – the temple of the Divine Madman. The Chimi Lhakhang monastery gets visitors not just from Bhutan but from far away distances as it is believed that any childless couple is blessed with a child soon after visiting this temple.
This fertility temple of Bhutan was built by 14th Drukpa hierarch, Ngawang Choegyel in 1499 – dedicated to Drukpa Kunley, one of the key monks who brought Buddhism to Bhutan from Tibet. Through his unusual teaching methods and unique songs laced with humor and sexual connotation earned him the name of the “Divine Madman”.
The monastery possesses the original wooden phallus brought by Drukpa Kunley from Tibet and used to bless people who visit the monastery on pilgrimage, particularly women seeking blessings to beget children.
Paro is a town in Bhutan, smaller than Thimphu in size. But it has the airport of Bhutan which has been nominated as the most difficult commercial airport in the world – because of its single runway. If you are standing on the main street out of the airport, you can see the landing flight up close – like its flying over your head – ya that close!
The rest of the day, we spent at Rinpung Dzong and clicked a few photos in Bhutan’s National dresses as a couple. Like most of the Dzong, Rinpung Dzong also consists of the district monarch body and the regional Government administrative offices. We weren’t allowed to enter the main section of the Dzong, so we spent most of our time near the Nemi Zam bridge, within the complex.
Our guide told us that a few of the scenes of the 1993 movie Little Buddha was shot in this Dzong.
Another great place to visit in Paro is the National Museum of Bhutan. It houses some of the finest specimens of Bhutanese art, including masterpieces of bronze statues and paintings.
The next day, we started early to climb up the famous Taktsang Monastery also known as the Tiger’s nest. The Takstand Monastery is built in 1862, in the cliffside of a mountain in the upper Paro valley. The climb from the base up to the monastery is a combination of whirlwind roads and approximately 700 stairs. It took us almost 4 hours to climb up and roughly 2 hours to climb down. There is a canteen at the halfway distance where you can stop and take rest before climbing again.
Takstand Monastery is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava and literally means “tiger’s lair”. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava came to one of the thirteen caves on the back of a tigress who was his follower and took the form of the tigress. He came to the cave to meditate to kill the demons hiding among the caves. After meditation, he emerged in eight incarnations and blessed the place holy.
We stayed in Hotel Pema Yangsel for two days – that gave us a beautiful view of the Paro Dzong lit up in the evenings.
On the last of the trip, we visited the Chele La pass – the highest motorable point in Bhutan, between Haa and Paro valleys. You could easily visit Haa via Chele La pass and come back the same day because Chele La pass is only 26 km away from Haa.
Haa valley encompassed by the Himalayas within Bhutan, is where nature looks its incredible best. This beautiful valley was open to tourists only in 2002 and since then has become a hot spot for tourists to spend some leisurely moments amidst nature.
Apart from its natural beauty, Haa valley is famous for the Black and White temples.
History says that King Songtsen Gampo released two pigeons – a black and white one to build temples across the region. The white pigeon landed on the mountains of Chenrizi where the White Temple (Lhakhang Karpo) while the black pigeon landed in the north where the Black Temple (Lhakhang Narpo) was built.
A third temple, Haa Dzong, was built further up the valley at a place where a lame pigeon, (a bodhisattva in disguised form) was found by the farmers.
There is another road via Chhuzom connecting Haa with Thimphu, making it easy to include Haa valley in your week-long itinerary. Since there are limited options to stay in Haa Valley, many prefer to visit Haa for a day and come back to Paro. While you are visiting Haa, don’t forget to try some buckwheat dumplings known as “Hontey”.
If you are visiting Bhutan for 10 days, you should include Bumthang and Gangtey.
Now that you know all about the amazing places to visit in Bhutan, start planning your trip soon. If you need any more information or a detailed itinerary, contact me.
Our time in Bhutan was relatively short, considering everything we managed to fit in, but the 7 days that we spent there were extraordinary. We fell in love with the country, its landscapes, its architecture, its people and its culture.
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