My work with our trekking company in Nepal sometimes requires me to travel to exotic and exciting destinations (poor me!!) and this December I was invited to Bhutan by their Tourism Council on a familiarisation visit. The Purpose of the FAM visit is for agents who sell Bhutan tours to go there and experience the type of package we are selling. It is also an opportunity for us to explore new expeditions and programs to run in Bhutan and on this occasion I was exploring Mountain Biking, Rafting and Trekking!
Often referred to as Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan is an extraordinary culture that only opens its doors to a select few every year which keeps its culture pristine and makes it a very sought after destination for an alternative adventure experience. With a population of just 700,000 people, the number of tourists annually seldom exceeds 100,000 people and if you are there in the winter then you will see almost no other tourists during your stay, which makes it quite a different experience to other Asian destinations like India or Nepal!
Until 2008 Bhutan was a monarchy but in 2006 the King decreed that his country would become a democracy and it was made so in just two years with none of the bloodshed that we find so synonymous in other parts of the world with the transition to democracy. Consequently the Royal Family is revered and very popular in Bhutan and although they no longer have power their ideas are still highly respected.
The constitution which was promulgated in 2008 along with the start of democracy includes several dictates that are designed to protect the environment and the people. These include the decree that Bhutan must always have a minimum of 60 per cent tree cover and in fact it currently has more than 70 per cent. This makes the pine clad mountains a great Oxygen resource. It also decrees that the happiness of the people must be put first in all things and the Gross National Happiness Quotient which has become so famous worldwide was in fact a concept from Bhutan. It is also the law that anyone who goes to work has to wear National dress, so walking around Bhutan is like stepping back in time!
If you want to find out more about the other initiatives that Bhutan has put into place to ensure that they are the only country in the World that is Carbon Negative then you can watch the Prime Minister of Bhutan in this link, to his recent TED Talk all about his country and their economy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Lc_dlVrg5M
Bhutan is fast becoming a great destination for Adventure Travel enthusiasts and a short five day trip there can easily include a half day mountain biking ($35 bike hire) and a half day raft trip on class 2-3 rapids ($40 / person). There are also a wide variety of opportunities to take part in several Bhutan based endurance events including the annual: Tour of The Dragon – 280km Mountain Bike race (1 day) and the Bhutan International Marathon (1 day).
Both Bhutan and Nepal are easily accessible from the UAE and since you need to travel via Nepal you can incorporate a trip to the two countries as part of the same tour. A five day package will give you a quick intro to the cultural sights of both countries and a longer twelve day package will enable you to experience a wide range of adventure activities and trekking.
Fishing and Hunting are illegal in Bhutan but you can go Wildlife or Bird watching and there are even Botanical and Butterfly treks now too. Similar to Nepal, the South of Bhutan has several National parks and the Bengal Tiger, One Horned Rhino and Asiatic Elephant are all still seen in the wild. In the North there are extensive forests around Thimpu, where if you are lucky you can see Sloth Bears, Wolves and Red Pandas. The King has set up beautiful Botanical Gardens and these include camping grounds and an informative and interactive Natural History Museum. Whilst visiting there I was lucky enough to be able to watch Bhutan Television filming a documentary on local folklore.
The Snowman Trek, which is said to be the hardest in the World and takes around one month, is in Bhutan and crosses 12 passes between 4500 and 5300 meters. It is so called because almost the entire trek is done in the snow and the King of Bhutan has famously also completed this trek.
As a predominantly Buddhist country (around 80 per cent) Bhutan has many important and beautiful Buddhist sites but the most spectacular has to be the World famousTigers Nest. Said to be the landing place (in the 8th Century) of the Guru Rinpoche, riding on the back of a flying Tiger, it is now a Monastery some 500 meters up a vertical cliff face with a series of caves that go deep into the rocks. This is where the Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated for 10 years.
On this trip I was lucky enough to be in Bhutan for their annual Dorchela Festival which is a beautiful showcase of traditional dance and song set with a stunning backdrop of the Himalayas. All the locals come in their best formal dress and bring picnics and rugs to set on the frosty ground where they sit as families to watch the events. It happens every year on the 13th December and it was noticeable how few tourists were there which made the whole experience feel much more like a local event.
At the end of my trip I had the opportunity to try two very famous Bhutanese activities. Out of their two Olympic Teams the best is their Archery team and for good reason. It is their National sport and extremely popular everywhere in Bhutan. I had a go in the stubbed paddy field behind the house of my hosts and it was great fun! Archery is known as “Dah” and the bow is made of two halves of bamboo bolted together in the middle. Everything is handmade from and the arrows are not quite straight (which is my excuse for how badly I did!). You have a target set up at each end of a field (roughly 100m apart) and you only get two arrows. You fire at one end then walk down to check your score, turn and fire at the other end. Anyone who hits the target (it seems like a rarity to me!) can do a little dance and call out “WahaWaha” which means “Hit, Hit”. The event is a lot of fun and everyone gets very excited!
At the same house I was also invited to take a hot stone bath which is up there with my top five luxury experiences of all time (and it only cost me $10!!). Stones are heated in a fire and then dropped into a wooden tub filled with cold spring water. A huge teabag of natural herbs is put into the tub and when the water is hot you get into the tub and relax and somehow the water just keeps getting hotter!! When I got out I was pink and very clean and refreshed, a truly magical experience!
I found Bhutan in general to be quite a different experience from any I had previously had travelling in Asia. The streets are immaculately clean as everyone uses the rubbish bins provided. Tobacco is banned in all public places and you can only smoke in your hotel room or house (Tobacco products are subject to import taxes of 200 per cent). There are far fewer cars because the population is so low and they all obey the traffic rules and don’t use their horns. The speed limit everywhere is 50kmph so it is both safe and quiet on the streets. The people I met and spoke to were all very polite and friendly and although culturally they are quite shy, nobody had a problem when I asked to take their photograph. Prices are cheap and the hotels are all beautiful. The lowest standard is three star and that is as good as most five star hotels in the rest of Asia.
So next time you have a five day weekend or a two week holiday, why not think about heading out to Bhutan to experience a whole new style of adventure travel!
Entry to Bhutan can either be done via Delhi or Kathmandu. Since India requires most nationalities to get a visa in advance this makes Nepal the easiest route where you can get your visa on arrival at Kathmandu airport. Fly Dubai or Air Arabia are the cheapest flights (1200-1400 AED) and take around 4 hours to Kth. Stay the night there and do some sightseeing in Nepal’s Capital then take a Druk air flight to Paro in Bhutan (1000 AED).
Visas and Costs:It costs $250 a day for the Bhutan visa and you have to apply at least a month in advance, however this includes all your food, accommodation (3 Star), Guide and Driver with car. You just have to pay for personal expenses and gifts.
Best Time of Year: The main season for Bhutan is from February to June. In July the monsoon rains arrive and in the winter the Bhutanese find it very cold so there is not much going on except the Dorche La Festival on Dec 13th every year.
Main Attractions: The spectacular Tigers Nest Monastery, the Dzongas (Fortresses) in each district
Currency: Nugltrum (Equivalent to the Indian Ruppee)
Dan Wright is the Business Director of “Holyland Treks and Expeditions” which is based in Kathmandu and runs tours, treks, expeditions and adventures in Nepal, India, Bhutan and Tibet.
You can apply direct to them for quotes on: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.htexpeditions.com
Bhutan is one of their major destinations and due to its ease of access from the UAE there are a wide variety of experiences that you can try. They run a five day Nepal/Bhutan Cultural Tour and a 12 day Nepal/Bhutan Adventure Tour.