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Three Weeks in Bhutan

Three Weeks in Bhutan

Old Feb 27, 13, 11:14 pm
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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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Old Feb 27, 13, 11:16 pm
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The Phobjika valley is known as the nesting site for the endangered black necked cranes. During the day I was there the local school was holding its school sports day. When I was a kid we used to call it “field day”. It was fun to visit and see the kids do their games. Any foreigner is treated as an honored guest. Later in the trip I attended a much larger school sports day in Trashiyangtse where I was invited to sit next to the mayor.





These young boys had to run from one end of the track to a place where all of their gho were and they had to properly dress themselves in the gho as fast as possible. And then run back. The gho is the national dress for men. As you can see it almost looks like a bathrobe. It is worn with knee high socks.



Gangtey Dzong is fairly new. The dzongs are fortresses that are usually the home to the clergy as well as being the administrative government seat of an area.




Yak along the road to Jakar

Coming soon...the Jakar Festival

Last edited by glennaa11; Feb 28, 13 at 11:12 am
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Old Feb 27, 13, 11:30 pm
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Thanks for a great OP and great photos! I look forward to more. Bhutan has been on my 'wish list' for a very long time and yours is the only TR I have seen that was 1) longer than a week-10 days and 2) didn't involve trekking but covered a large amount of the country.
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Old Feb 28, 13, 12:18 am
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Wow, very interesting! The Takin sure looks like an odd critter.
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Old Feb 28, 13, 10:02 am
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Jakar Festival

Bhutan is basically a bunch of deep valleys that run from north to south. So in order to go from west to east you have to go over a lot of mountains. And since the road is so small that takes a long time. The trip from Gangtey to Jakar takes about 5 hours. Since my visit they have been building a few small airports including one at Jakar that was under construction when I was there. So it may be possible to fly in from Paro and save a lot of travel time.

I was in Jakar for their annual tsechu or festival. The festival is held in the dzong and people come from all around the area to attend. It is mainly a religious event but it’s also a major social occasion. Everyone dresses in their best clothes. I was there for the second and third days of the festival. On day 2 the place was really buzzing with people chatting and catching up with each other. Day 3 was much more solemn. The dancers are very interesting and their costumes are beautiful. There are lots of photos from the festival.







































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Old Feb 28, 13, 10:04 am
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Jakar Dzong from the outside



Young monks at Jampay Lakhang, one of the oldest monasteries in the country



View over Jakar town. Just a few days later when I was in the east of the country a large fire wiped out much of the town.

Next up. Tang.

Last edited by glennaa11; Jun 22, 15 at 11:33 am
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Old Feb 28, 13, 1:09 pm
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Tang

Tang is a tiny town in a valley about 2 hours’ drive from Jakar. It’s not far distance wise but you have to take a very winding small road up the mountain. And then you have to get out and walk the last little ways. I was never able to adjust to the altitude in Bhutan which made climbing very difficult for me. I was constantly out of breath, sweating profusely and my heart was racing. Apparently it happens to many people of all different fitness levels. But it made the climb, part of the way in mud very hard.

The destination was a manor house on top of a hill that belongs to a family that is close to the monarchy. They have a small guesthouse and a museum. The place is called Ugyen Chholing. There is a large house where the family lives and a smaller two story out building with several small rooms on the upper floor. The lower floor is for storage mostly. My room was tiny with essentially two very narrow cots. I had the only room in the place with an electric heater. It was one of those oil heaters. I much preferred that over a wood stove. It did make things toasty warm. Needless to say the walls and windows aren’t exactly triple insulated.

The weather had been fairly rainy most of my time in Bhutan up until here with the exception of the first day in Thimphu. To add to my woes I had been sick with a cold pretty much since the moment I entered the LH lounge at IAD. I was not a happy camper at this point in the trip. I am not used to roughing it to this degree and the weather really brought me down too. Add in the fact that I didn’t feel a connection with my guide and this was probably the low point in the trip.

We did have a little fun in the afternoon at Tang when another couple of guests arrived. There were Italians and we ended up crossing paths quite a bit for much of the trip. Their guide and mine had gotten out a bow and archery target. Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. The only other time I had ever held a bow was probably 7th grade gym class. But I was surprisingly good at archery.

The next day the sun was out and my mood brightened a bit as well. I spent two nights in Tang. I think it was one night too many. To get to the bathroom I had to go outside to the other wing of the guesthouse. At night that was really cold. And there wasn’t much in the way of hot water.

But here are some photos.


Guesthouse building


Chorten and prayer flags at Ugyen Chholing


Tang Valley


Ugyen Chholing museum




entrance to the compound




friendly cat








path down to the valley




even the cows use the bridge




Tang Chhu (River)


Last edited by glennaa11; Jun 22, 15 at 11:35 am
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Old Feb 28, 13, 4:04 pm
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The next day we made the long 10 hour drive from Tang to Mongar. This was the longest drive of the trip and took us over the highest pass in the country at Thromshingla.

Mongar is a pretty good sized town in the east of the country. The hotel here was one of the nicer ones on the trip.

I should take a minute to talk about the food. I was told that the tourism department requires all of the hotels to send their cooks to school to learn how to cook for foreigners. This means you end up eating the same food a lot. I did find the food in the east to be better than the west. Perhaps that was due to the closer proximity to India so there was more meat and it was better. You end up eating a lot of red rice, potatoes, curried eggs, scrambled eggs, fried eggs... The national dish is a mix of cheese and chili peppers. Too hot for me. In the east we ended up with more chicken and beef curry type things which were very tasty.


Ura, a big town on the way to Mongar


Thromshingla pass





We spent a couple of nights in Mongar. THe day after arriving there we took a day trip up to Lhuntse. My guide is from there so we visited his family’s home to have lunch. They are farmers with a very big house. It was quite basic.


Lhuntse Dzong
















There was an archery tournament going on in the shadow of the dzong. The target is that little white board. The archers shoot from very far away, probably the length of about 150 yards or so.






View from the hotel in Mongar
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Old Feb 28, 13, 4:52 pm
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After our time on Mongar we drove further east to Trashiyangtse.

On our drive we saw some incredible things along the roadside. There were these enormous spider webs between the trees and bushes at the roadside. Hundreds and hundreds of spiders. I had never seen anything like it. I always thought of spiders as being more solitary. They must all be competing for food pretty hard.





At our stop for lunch I happened upon some butterflies...one of my favorite subjects





Chorten Kora, Trashiyangtse


My driver, Dewas, poses






Our hotel in Trashiyangtse. I really liked it here. The people were very friendly. Lots of little kids waving and saying “hi” which I guess was the extent of their English.


HIV prevention signs like this were all over the place.

The guys decided to wash our car. The Bhutanese seemed oddly interested in washing their cars. Often at the side of the road there would be a hose or water just randomly streaming out of the rock and you’d see motorists or truck drivers stopped to wash their vehicles. Of course the roads are so dusty they would be dirty again five minutes later.

While the guys were washing the car one of the locals stopped to chat. It turned out to be some one that my guide knew who worked at the local school who told him that the next day was the big school sports day there. The school was just down the street. So since our next stop was not too far away we decided to spend the morning there. It was much bigger than the one in Phobjika. And as I mentioned I was invited to join the local government official (mayor or deputy something or other) in the main tent. It’s not the sort of invitation you can turn down.












It was all very well-organized with the teachers and older kids acting as “officials”


In the middle there was a little skit, in English, about the importance of Phys Ed





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Old Feb 28, 13, 4:53 pm
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Around lunch time we headed out of town even farther east to Ranjung. Ranjung is a new town with paved streets laid out in a grid. The government was trying to get people to move to the town but people weren’t interested in leaving their traditional homes. So Ranjung remained largely empty.








Tashigang Dzong. Tashigang is quite a large town that was on the way to Ranjung


Ranjung guesthouse was quite new but very basic. There was a caretaker who made the meals in a small building behind the guesthouse. They actually had satellite TV there. I spent a bit of time watching EPL football there.

I think overall this may have been my favorite day on the trip. From school sports day to meeting a gentleman who lived next to the guesthouse who was a teacher at the local highschool. It was very interesting to talk to him about Bhutan and the world. He was taking care of the enormous house next to the guesthouse for its own who spends a lot of his time in the US raising money for the monastery in Ranjung.







The next day we went to the town of Radhi which is the farthest east we went. Folks who trek to the recently opened tribal areas in the far east that we long closed to visitors leave from Radhi. There’s not a whole lot here other than a big convent and a couple of schools.






There are tons of stray dogs all over the country. Some people are kept awake by their barking and howling at night.


Convent in Radhi


View from the backyard of the Ranjung guesthouse




Ranjung Monastery


Last edited by glennaa11; Feb 28, 13 at 5:00 pm
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Old Feb 28, 13, 5:00 pm
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Thank you very much sharing this with us. It is one country I have always wanted to visit as we know so little about it.
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Old Feb 28, 13, 5:29 pm
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Thank you so much for these pictures. They are amazing! what a beautiful place. I am dying to visit soon.
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Old Feb 28, 13, 5:37 pm
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After our morning trip to Radhi the afternoon was pretty quiet. We dropped in briefly at the monastery which is quite new and beautiful.

In the afternoon our driver Dewas wanted to be my guide as he knew some people in the town. We walked around a bit and stopped in at a little tea house run by a girlfriend of his. He didn’t speak a lot of English but I felt a lot more comfortable with him than I did with the guide. He was a good guy and very good driver despite the fact that he looks like he is 20.

After Ranjung it was time to start our drive back to the west. We did an overnight in Mongar again which was pretty uneventful. Then the next day was another 10 hour drive back to Jakar. While we were in Mongar the first time there was a massive fire in Jakar that wiped out one big swath of town. The buildings were all made of wood and were fairly ramshackle. Apparently some sort of electrical short started it. This was very big news around the country. The king and his father the previous king along with many government official went to the town to lend their moral support. When we arrived our hotel had been largely taken over by government ministers and I think at least one member of the royal family. But we still had our rooms.


Lots of big waterfalls




first snows of the season on the mountains

From Jakar we drove to Trongsa home to a very large dzong and a nice museum overlooking it in the old watch tower






Trongsa Dzong

We spent one night in Trongsa. In the afternoon we went to see Kuenga Rabten which was the winter residence of the second king of the current dynasty. It’s a very large house. I believe he died there in an archery accident, IIRC.




Kuenga Rabten







From Trongsa we continued on to Punakha which used to be the capital and is still home to the spiritual leader for part of the year.




On the way we stopped at Chimi Lhakhang which is a very famous temple that couples visit who want to have a baby. They are blessed by a monk with a wooden phallus in a fertility rite.




Not sure who that little kid was trying to hide from


The guesthouse in Punakha was very nice with gorgeous gardens

Punakha Dzong. As the former capital it is probably the most impressive of them all. It is beautifully sited between two big rivers. Unfortunately they have had some major floods over the years when earthen dams upriver have broken



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Old Feb 28, 13, 5:37 pm
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This kid called out to me to take his picture. So I did, much to the amusement of his friends.
















butter lamps...they’ve burned down more than one dzong over the years







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Old Feb 28, 13, 5:55 pm
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After our stop in Punakha we headed back to Thimphu. It was a race though against time as the highway was being closed for construction near Thimphu at a certain time so we had to make it back by then order to not have to wait several hours at the roadblock. Dewas drove like an F1 driver and we made it in good time.

I had some time free to wander around Thimphu on my own. The national stadium is right across the street from the Kisa Hotel where I stayed so that was my first stop.





And it turned out that there was a big darts tournament going on at the archery grounds of the stadium which was a nice surprise. While the men shoot with bows and arrows, the women play darts with what look essentially like lawn darts. They heckle each other when they prepare to throw. It’s rather entertaining.


pregame entertainment









rather than traffic lights they just have police directing traffic


clock tower square

The next day we went back to Paro where I would spend the last couple of nights of my trip.


chilis drying


this bamboo scaffolding doesn’t look very strong to me


weekend volleyball












Janka Resort, Paro
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