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Old Feb 27, 13, 11:14 pm
Join Date: Jan 2006
Location: DCA/IAD
Programs: most of them
Posts: 3,229
Three Weeks in Bhutan

Thanks for all of the encouragement from my first trip report, so I will add in a couple of others from recent visits to interesting places. I make a book after each year’s trip. So it should be possible to create reasonable trip reports. And Bhutan is as good a place to start as any.

I spent three weeks in Bhutan in October/November 2010. I had been considering going there for quite some time. Since photography is the principle aim of all my trips, I typically start out the planning by doing an internet search for “photo tour [destination]”. In the case of Bhutan one of the first hits was a company called Keys to Bhutan. In order to visit Bhutan you must arrange your trip through a local operator (or a middleman agent but that is just a waste). And while there are no limits on the number of visitors, the price keeps a lot of people away. At the time of my visit the daily cost was something like $240 per day, per person for “groups” smaller than 3 or 4. As a solo traveler this actually ends up being a pretty generous loophole since my $240 per day got me the same guide, driver/vehicle and hotel accommodations as a couple who paid $240*2 would have gotten. The fee also covers all meals. So in the end it is not a bad deal. I opted for a business class ticket on Druk Air from BKK which was not cheap at something like $750 or 900…I can’t remember exactly. The daily cost includes basic tourist class hotels. If you want the luxe hotels like the Aman’s you pay a whole lot more. You pay in advance (at that time by wire transfer, not sure if that has changed) and the money is held by the tourism authority and only released to the tour company after your visit.

In organizing the trip I found out that the owner of Keys to Bhutan is an avid photographer. Most of the postcards for sale around the country are pictures he shot. All during the planning I expected that he was going to be my guide as he put the itinerary together. But his wife recently had a baby so he wasn’t able to travel with me. Unfortunately my guide for the whole 3 weeks and I didn’t really have any chemistry so it made the trip less fun than it could have been.

My itinerary started in Thimphu (the capital) and went all the way to the less-visited Eastern end of the country and then all the way back to the west. In three weeks it was do-able but it was a lot of driving. The “national highway” is a mountain road that is about 1.5 cars wide in most places that hugs the side of the mountains. So it is a very wavy road. Subject to frequent landslides and rockfalls that can wipe the road out for considerable periods. It is a little bit scary. I’m not sure how the drivers can do it day after day. The road was also closed from time to time for construction so we had to time things right in order to avoid very long waits.

The flight from BKK to Paro left quite early in the morning. I think we arrived around 11. Paro airport is pretty amazing set in the Himalayas. The approach down the narrow valley is somewhat exciting.

You cross the tarmac to the terminal and pick up your bag. Then through immigration and customs. I met my guide and driver outside and we were off to Thimphu. The drive takes a little less than an hour. I settled in at the Kisa Hotel and we went to lunch at a traditional place which was pretty good. Then we toured around the city for the rest of the day.

I’ll spare you the day by day itinerary because I don’t really remember it. So I’ll just post a lot of pictures and a little commentary.

The Memorial Chorten for the Third King (a shrine)

Thimphu Valley

The Takin – Bhutan’s odd national animal

Thimphu Dzong – the seat of government

Wall paintings at Simthotka Dzong

Festival masks. There is a school where people come from all over the country to learn traditional crafts including carving, embroidery and painting. The school is called the National Institute for Zorig Chosum

Simthotka Dzong

The national highway under construction. You have to wait. The road works and repairs are mainly done by migrant workers from India who live in pretty deplorable conditions and do a lot of backbreaking manual labor. The tourism people like to tout “Gross National Happiness” which was the brainchild of the 4th king in the 1970s. The idea is that instead of just measuring economic growth, you should measure the happiness of the people instead. This gets a lot of play in the media and from visitors and travel writers. But once you pull back the curtain it doesn’t take long to find folks like these road workers. Or the ethnic Nepalis who are confined to refugee camps. No one talks about the happiness of those people. I think Bhutan is absolutely worth a visit. But I think you need to go in with your eyes open and some healthy skepticism.

Memorials at Dochu La (pass) for the 108 Bhutanis who died in fighting with rebels many years ago.

Wangdue Phodrang Dzong – built in 1638, unfortunately it was destroyed by a fire in June 2012

Dewachen Hotel in Gangtey. Very chilly overnight. Most places have wood burning stoves in the room to help keep you warm.
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