Traveling to Bhutan—Asia’s “must go to” destination—is no easy task either for visitors seeking a peek at the enchanted land that has been justifiably labeled “The Last Shangri-La,” or for agents booking trips into this splendid geographical marvel.
Sometimes it’s thorny to grasp that this tiny chunk of real estate squeezed between India and China and a tad smaller than West Virginia, may be the last place on earth where the enduring coexists with the contemporary, where dazzling vistas intermingle with passionate Buddhist devoutness, and where foreigners are still perceived as something of a curiosity.
This is a country that holds its cards close to its vest. Government regulations appear to have been specifically written to keep tourists at arm’s length. Its rigid entry guidelines have led to the myth that a quota exists on the number of tourists allowed per year. But that is just that: a myth.
In fact, when confronted with the strict guidelines the Bhutanese government mandates—including a tourist tariff of $250 pp per day (the government-mandated amount that each visitor must spend while in country, but which includes hotels, meals, transportation, etc.)—a modern traveler contemplating a visit is likely to ask, “Why the attitude?”
According to a staffer at the Tourism Council of Bhutan who, of course, prefers to remain anonymous, “The guidelines were set up to avoid the negative impact on [Bhutan’s] culture and environment. Last year, the kingdom allowed only about 105,000 visitors who were either guests of the government or traveling on approved tours. We don’t foresee any increase this year.”
The entry guidelines are indeed inflexible: All tourists (groups or individuals) must travel on a pre-planned, prepaid, guided package tour or custom-designed travel program. Independent travel is not permitted in Bhutan.
Bureaucratic procedures aside, selling Bhutan is easy. Not only will travelers experience the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of visiting a place that with its self-imposed isolation has no rival, but will be exposed to a culture that seems contentedly mired in an astonishing Himalayan time warp.
After all, where else can one hear the singsong chants of young monks cloistered in a sparkling monastery with a backdrop of snow-dusted hills? What other country flaunts its traditional dress, a charming, centuries’ old garment, as the preferred attire of Bhutanese daily life?
That, and much more, awaits visitors.
Much has been written about how the country does not rate success through economic indexes. Instead, its productivity is measured in “Gross National Happiness,” a government policy that puts the well-being of its citizens at the forefront.
In Thimphu, the national capital and Bhutan’s largest city, happiness and good cheer seem alive—and when it comes to exotic destinations, the city is a showstopper. Here, most visitors will want to gape at the royal residence; the Changangkha Lhakhang Temple; folk heritage museums and weaving centers where the exquisite workmanship of Bhutanese cloth makers is evident. Here, there are no traffic lights (one was set up a few years ago, but was taken down because Bhutanese thought it to be antagonistic) in the sparklingly clean city that literally sprouts from a pine forest (after all, 75 percent of Bhutan is still covered with trees and its peaceful atmosphere prevails).
Thimphu, too, is the gateway to sites with quixotic names like the Snow Lion Cave, a holy place surrounded by delicate waterfalls and small monasteries where monks meditate on the roof of the world while weaving thanka, the elegant Buddhist tapestries that can be bought at ridiculously low prices.
And what type of traveler exactly ventures into this Himalayan wonderland?
According to Edwin Blythe, president of Zegrahm Expeditions, traveling to see the wonders in Bhutan comes with a caveat requiring “a moderate level of activity…Bhutan had long been closed to foreigners and its tourist infrastructure is in its infancy. Participants should note that on some days the itinerary includes long bus journeys often over unpaved roads. In addition, weather-related problems could dictate a change of itinerary and hotels. We use the best available accommodations…but they may not always be up to Western standards. Most of the places we visit are at high elevations and some individuals may experience altitude sickness.”
Zegrahm Expeditions’ next scheduled trek to Bhutan (from about $8,970 pp dbl) is a 14-day journey designed for a maximum of 18. It is slated for mid-April next year.
Tour highlights show off the country’s most beautiful assets and ones that are included in most tours of Bhutan. There are visits to the fabled Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a Himalayan architectural wonder improbably balanced on the edge of a 3,000-ft. cliff high above rice fields and considered one of the kingdom’s most sacred religious sites.
The 90-minute hike to reach the monastery’s gates unwinds through pine forests and past astonishing Buddhist shrines with prayer flags flapping in the thin air. It is one of the most striking panoramas in Asia—a Kodak moment if ever there was one.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan strictly manages tourism to the splendid structure, and a government-licensed guide must accompany all foreigners.
There are also options for active hikes and wildlife viewing in the Phobjika Valley where timing and luck make it possible to see rare creatures like black-necked cranes, wild boar, barking deer, Himalayan black bears and leopards.
Since Bhutan has sparked such interest from visitors, travel agents face hurdles that are vastly different from booking a trip to destinations with easier access. Hima Singh, president of Asian-Pacific Adventures, says that “when a prospective client comes in expressing an interest in Bhutan a travel agent should immediately contact a reputed tour operator with a long-standing track record to assist in booking a group or a private custom tour.”
She emphasizes: “The most important fact is that you cannot book Bhutan on your own, or saunter into the country as a backpacker. You must book Bhutan with a bona fide tour operator. Travel agents should be aware of what the client’s interests are; what is the budget; what type of hotels the client prefers; what type of activities, like hiking, is the client seeking; is the client a nature lover who will love the orchids grown in Bhutan? Is the client interested in the textiles the country is famous for? Those are very important questions.”
Singh adds that travel agents and their clients should speak directly with tour operators to outline the itinerary and discuss proposals for land and air transportation and make necessary deposits before setting up the trip.
Whatever the tour, visitors are almost guaranteed to leave the country with deep impressions that will make Bhutan stand out as perhaps the most distinctive destination in Asia.
A new airline, Bhutan Airlines, was launched in October with flights from Bangkok to Paro, the country’s only international airport. Additional service from Singapore, Nepal, Dubai, Bangladesh and Hong Kong lies in the future. Bhutan Airlines will complement Drukair, the national airline that offers service throughout Asia.
The 3-hour flight from Bangkok (from about $720 roundtrip) offers both premium and economy cabins, and as the aircraft approaches Paro, passengers are treated to one of the most spectacular airline descents in the world: 19,000-ft. peaks seem to float past the windows on both sides, revealing all the splendor of the Himalayas before a thrilling landing.
all the way to bhutan with goway
Bronwyn Hodge, Asia product and marketing coordinator for Goway, describes Bhutan In-Depth and Bhutan Interlude, the company’s two premier Bhutan travel packages for those interested in visiting an entrancing kingdom, as “unique travel experiences [in a destination] that offers that something special.”
Most Bhutan cognoscenti unanimously agree that “something special” is apt when describing the mystifying landlocked land.
According to Hodge, travelers will also experience breathtaking scenery from the moment the flight arrives to when they leave over the daunting Himalayas.
“Bhutan is steeped in ancient history that comes alive in the many monastic fortresses and ancient temples that line the countryside,” she adds. “In addition to its natural scenery, newcomers will be impressed by the warm and welcoming locals.”
Goway offers several remarkable adventures in the region: Bhutan Interlude (from $1,115 pp dbl) is a 4-day excursion touching on Bhutan’s main attractions. It takes visitors to the scenic city of Paro, as well as to Thimphu. Meals, transfers, entrance fees, English guide, and government/visa fees are included.
Bhutan in Depth (from $2,099 pp dbl), a 7-day trek, allows visitors to submerge themselves in the enigmatic kingdom. Besides Paro and Thimphu, visitors will cross the Dochula Pass with breathtaking views of the Himalayas before descending into the lush valley to Punakha. There is also a visit to the Punakha Dzong (The Palace of Great Bliss), one of the most majestic structures in the country. Meals, transfers, entrance fees, English guide, and government and visa fees.
In addition, Goway offers two brief, 3-day stopovers in the country: Thimphu Stopover ($719 pp dbl) is a delightful introduction to the wonders of Bhutan, while Paro Stopover ($719 pp dbl) affords the opportunity to visit the enchanting city of monasteries, museums and temples.
(800) 557-2841; gowayagent.com
tour operator intel
Mary Barnett, concierge sales for SITA World Tours, says Bhutan is an exceptional destination. “It is a land of mystery and wonder. From time immemorial to the present-day philosophers, mystics and those seeking spirituality, solitude and inspiration have traveled to this ancient land. Its isolation in the Himalayas has created one of the world’s last unspoiled civilizations that draws today’s travelers. No sooner than you set foot in this mountain aerie, you are transported back in time. Despite the modern comforts and technology that have now invaded this kingdom, you are still overwhelmed with a sense of tranquility and well-being. The populace is quaint and gentle, and the sights are wondrous. In short, the entire Kingdom of Bhutan is a quintessential nature retreat, unlike any on earth,” she says.
Next year, SITA is expanding its present 7-day Bhutan menu by offering either first-class or deluxe classes. First-class ($2,595 pp dbl) accommodations are at the Tenzinling Resort in Paro or at the Hotel Migmar in Thimphu. Deluxe travelers (from $5,840 pp dbl) are housed at the Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, a 45-room, five-star Bhutanese-style property with a tea-house cottage with library, a full spa and a meditation house.
(800) 421-5643; sitatours.com/AgentServices/index.php
While there is an almost unanimous agreement between operators that Bhutan is a destination unlike any other, Seema Prakash, destination manager for the Indian subcontinent at Cox & Kings, says that “when it comes to tourism, sustainable development, preservation, promotion of its culture, core traditional values and protection of its environment lie at the forefront of its government’s policy. Every decision is carefully weighed for the benefit of its people.”
Cox & Kings tenders an impressive 2014 menu for those with Bhutan in their crosshairs. A series of 6-day trips (from approximately $4,995 pp dbl) will take travelers to the country’s most significant sites with stops in Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. Wildlife lovers will delight in excursions designed to view the taki—a cattle chamois that is Bhutan’s national symbol—and an outing to the Rinpung Dzong, the country’s oldest and most celebrated fortress.
(800) 999-1758; coxandkingsusa.com/content/travel-advisor-portal-login
Scott Avera, v.p. of product development for General Tours, which has been conducting tours to the country for more than 20 years, says that Bhutan is “mainly purchased as an extension to our India and Nepal programs. But upon return, clients realize that Bhutan was the highlight of the trip. They fall in love with the people, the Himalayan views and, of course, with climbing the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.”
He says that he recommends Bhutan as a destination because of its “authenticity. Every country has its own unique sense of place, but in Bhutan it’s the land’s overall spirituality, the charm of its people and the fact that there is a postcard Himalayan view around every corner.”
General Tours offers two 6-day tours. Its Visions of Bhutan (starting at $4,299 pp dbl) unwinds through the most familiar sites of the country, while its Spirit of Bhutan (from approximately $3,899 pp dbl) allows travelers to spend an evening enjoying a home-cooked meal at a Thimphu private family home where one can get a first-hand experience of what daily life in the kingdom is all about.
(800) 221-2216; generaltours.com/Rewards/Login.aspx