5 Travel tips to know before planning your Bhutan Tour
Bhutan is a paradise full of amazing people, deep history, and mesmerizing culture unlike anything else in the world. Here, the past is ever-present and alive from its people to the architecture and everything in between. A perfect destination for travelers who want an air of mystery and vibrant city life mixed with tradition and spirituality.
Travel to Bhutan is easier than before thanks to the country slowly opening up to tourists from around the world. However, unlike most tourist destinations, Bhutan puts heavy emphasis on sustainable tourism which is in line with their commitment to being one of the most sustainable countries in the world.
There are a lot of fun things you can do in this lovely country like going outdoors or visiting temples. If you have not figured out what to do yet, here is a great Bhutan Travel guide you should definitely check out. But before you go, here are things you should consider when traveling into this wonderful nation.
Book a tour package
Unlike most countries today, tourists and visitors are not able to freely enter the country. One must book with one of the government accredited tour companies to be allowed to visit this country. The visa application costs $250 per day which can be very steep for most especially budget travelers.
But the high cost actually includes all the things you need during your visit such as hotel accommodations, choice of water or tea, entrance fees and your driver and guide including your own private transport. A large part of this fee also goes directly to funding the country’s education and health programs which makes you a direct contributor to the betterment of the country.
Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians are exempted from the only guided tour policy. They are free to enter the country—either via land or plane—and are entitled to a 60-day Bhutan visa upon entry. If you are not a citizen from these countries, however, you need to coordinate with your travel agency to get your Bhutan visa application approved. They will send you a visa clearance letter from your tour provider which you will need to present before you are allowed to enter. Once inside, you are not allowed to travel between cities without your guide however, you are free to explore the city alone as much as you like.
Prepare for the climate
Bhutan has varied elevation throughout its entirety. From the lofty Himalayan peaks of the north to the low lying valleys scattered throughout the country. This could mean you get to experience in a wide variety of weather conditions depending on the locations you want to visit and the time of the year. Packing light is the best way to go for maximum mobility.
Spring and fall are the best times for a Bhutan trip. Though it can get cold, this offers clear skies perfect if you want to marvel at the great Himalayan peaks without the clouds blocking your view.
The weather would also be perfect for people who enjoy the outdoors without breaking a sweat. Bring a couple of outerwear like a jacket as it could get really chilly at times.
Summer is Monsoon season in Bhutan. Though heavy downpour is a rare occurrence, trecking might still be difficult and could even be temporarily closed off. Bring appropriate rain gear and footwear as trails can be really muddy. It usually rains for a couple of hours in the morning so try scheduling your treks a later in the day so you get to enjoy the trail without getting soaked.
Read up on local customs
Bhutan is still a very conservative country and visitors are expected to follow local courtesy and etiquette. Acquainting yourself with some of these basic courtesies ensures is crucial especially for first-time travelers. Never demean or insult the Royal family in any way as the Bhutanese people hold them in very high regard. Avoid being loud and rowdy especially around holy places like the temple complexes.
When visiting Dzongs—a kind of fortress structure with religious and administrative buildings inside—you should be wearing appropriate attire for you to be allowed in temple interiors. Proper attire includes long pants and long-sleeved shirts that completely cover your legs and arms respectively. Jackets need to be properly worn, i.e. not tied to the waist and should be buttoned and zipped. Hats and other head covering should be removed when entering temples although they are allowed outside the Dzongs or the courtyard.
Another thing you should prepare yourself for is the prolific use of phallic symbols all across the country. For outsiders, especially western tourists, this can be quite shocking to see. In Bhutan, these symbols are meant to ward off evil spirits and are therefore painted near entrances and doorways to homes and businesses.
Get the necessary medical preparations
So you have your itinerary all sorted out, you have also packed all the necessary things you will need on the trip. All that’s left now is to prepare your body for the journey. Before traveling to the country, it is a great idea to visit your doctor and get yourself screened. Going to a new unfamiliar place, it is best to get all the necessary vaccine shots in order to protect yourself. For starters, it’s great to get MMR and Hepatitis A shots. Getting a tetanus shot is also a good idea since you will be spending some time in the outdoors. If you need medications, it is best to get them ahead especially for hard to get medication.
Prepare for the Bhutanese food experience
If you’re a fan of hot and spicy food, Bhutan’s food is definitely up your alley. Bhutan’s food is known to be very spicy as chili has been deeply ingrained into Bhutanese society that they consume the spice on the daily. Ema Datshi—Bhutan’s national dish—is made with rice and a special cheese sauce all topped with very hot chili. A definite must-try for foodies worldwide. Do not worry though as your guides will ask you before-hand if you have any dietary restrictions or allergies. Most of the restaurants in the cities are also quite accommodating and will cook up a non-spicy batch for you provided that they are informed beforehand.
The Brokpas of Merak and Sakteng
The Brokpas : “Brok” meaning Highland and “Pa” meaning inhabitant, are a unique semi nomadic tribe who reside in the two blocks of Merak and Sakteng valleys of far eastern Trashigang district bordering Arunachal Pradesh, India. In fact there are Bokpas in large numbers in Arunachal and Tibet too. According to their oral history, the Brokpas originated from the Yarlung Village in the Tshona region of South Tibet and came to Bhutan after they beheaded a tyrannical king in their ancestral village. The King’s palace never had enough sunlight due to the shade of a hill, so he issued a decree to cut down and level the hill.
The villagers were then induced to kill the King by Aum Jomo in the disguise of a woman with a little child. Led through the mountains by the deity Aum Jomo and the Guru Lam Jarepa, they first landed in present day Arunachal Pradesh in India and then into Bhutan and brought along with them scores of religious texts, their form of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, and their distinct culture. They however, could not settle in Somathang village in Arunachal because of famine and snakebites. Lam Jarepa consulted Aum Jomo, who waved a white fabric towards the east. During the journey, lam Jarepa is said to have cleared a path by piercing through a treacherous rock. This rock can still be found at Arunachal Pradesh and Sakteng border. On reaching Tsholung (evil lake that disappeared humans into clouds), lam Jarepa divided the lake into three. Each belonged to the three ethnic groups of Brokpas (Kom, Lon and Rok). The three lakes still exist in northern Sakteng, where nomads today use the surrounding as grazing land (Tsamdro).
The Brokpa people are semi-nomadic yak herders who have lived largely in isolation since arriving to Bhutan. The Brokpas are transhumance pastoralists whose profession and livelihood is dependent on yak rearing and use resources like high mountain pastures characteristically by their unique mobility patterns. Several of their villages, like Sakteng, Tengma, and Borang Tse, still have no road access today. Others, like Merak, can be reached by car safely only during the dry season. As a result of their remoteness in the country, the Brokpa’s language and customs are very unique than other Bhutanese ethnic groups.
The interesting legendary story that goes around says that after entering Bhutan from Tibet, a group of weaker ones couldn’t cross a high mountain pass, The Nakchungla Pass (4153m), so they settled in the Sakteng valley area and the rest went further on to the Merak valley and settled there. So between the two valleys, the joke that goes is that the Brokpas of Sakteng are the weaklings compared to the ones in Merak. It’s just an oral story, so the authenticity can’t actually be verified.
These Brokpas’ main source of livelihood are the yaks, though they raise sheep, pigs, chicken etc. Only 3% of their land is arable so they depend on their yaks and move with them according to the weather. Their principal crops include corn, buckwheat, barley, and beets. They work for long hours in the fields in order to get produce enough produce to feed their families in the harsh climate. Other important activities include herding yaks and sheep, and spinning and weaving wool.
So the Brokpas move seasonally with their animals with their system of transhumance mobility which are basically yaks and sheep between fresh pastures while keeping their eyes open for the revered yeti, or “migoi”, an animal so important in this part of the world that Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was created to protect it. In the autumn Brokpa men on horseback race to the sacred mountain Jomo Kukhar (after Aum Jomo) to honour their protective deity, the mountain goddess Jomo Kuengkhar. Racing is followed by rounds of home-brewed wine, prayers, songs and dances offered in return for blessings for prosperity. The immense privilege of trekking in this remote wilderness is to find a people whose culture seems frozen in time as they continue to live and practice their age old customs and traditions in much the same way as their ancestors did. The intrepid travelers who make it here though the deep valleys and over the 4153m Nachungla Pass might even be lucky and be treated to Ache-Lhamo nomadic celebration or a Yak Cham or ” the dance of the yaks”.
The Brokpa women wear their hair long and they typically wear red and white silk ponchos, red silk jackets decorated with animal designs, and red wool capes. They may also wear braided black wool jackets. The men wear leather or cloth pants under big, white wool trousers; red wool jackets; and sometimes sleeveless outer garments made of leather and felt. Both men and women wear turquoise earrings. The most distinctive part of the Brokpa outfit, however, is the unique felt hat like discs made from yak hair and has five tail-like “spouts” that allow water to drain and the head to stay dry. They follow the “Red Hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Traditional Tibetan shamanism is also practiced by some. The shamanists believe in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits. They depend on a shaman (priest or priestess) to communicate with the spirits on their behalf. Most Buddhist families have shrines for worship inside their homes.
Now that modernity has set in, there is even a 7 day Merak Sakteng Trek for travelers.
|Max Elevation||4,100 m|
|Min Elevation||1,500 m|
|Season||March, April, May, September, October, November|
|No. of Days||7 Days|
Day 1: Chaling – Damnongchu
Day 2: Damnongchu – Merak
Day 3: Merak – Miksa Teng
Day 4: Miksa Teng – Sakteng
Day 5: Sakteng Day Halt
Day 6: Sakteng – Jyonkhar Teng
Day 7: Jyonkhar Teng – Phongmay
TAKTSANG MONASTREY – THE TIGER’S NEST
The Senge Samdup cave in the Tiger’s Nest premises, perched high up in a rocky cliff, 900m above the Paro valley, is where the legend, Guru Rinpoche, the great Indian saint who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, meditated in the 8th century.
Guru Rinpoche flew to the cave on the back of a tigress, hence its popular name – the Taktsang, which literally means “Tiger’s Nest”. The flying tigress is believed to be Yeshe Tsogyal. It was inside the same cave that he meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours.
Later the caves became important holy shrines and numerous learned Buddhist monks have visited and meditated in the caves since the 8th century. The ultimate desire of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (early 17th century), the unifier of Bhutan as a nation-state, to build a monastery near the famous holy caves was fulfilled only at the end of the 17th century. Paro Taktsang Monastery was built around the holy caves in 1692 by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye – Bhutan’s 4th Druk Desi. He founded the monastery by putting its first stone during a visit to the holy caves in 1692.
In 1998, a big fire almost completely burned down the Paro Taktsang, and was restored to its original splendor by 2005.
Elevation : 3120m (900m above the Paro Valley)
Trek Distance and Time : About 5+ km uphill and downhill from the base camp at the foot of the mountain. It can take 1 1/2 – 2hrs hour going up, down a bit shorter.
Tips to Hiking to.the Tiger’s Nest:
- Get a hang of the altitude/ get acclimatized on the first day at Paro.
- Eat a light and easy breakfast, it helps immensely.
- Carry chocolates, energy bites and drinks
- Carry a light backpack.
- Start as early as possible.
- Wear a hat and sunglasses, a walking stick is an added advantage.
- Maintain your own pre-meditated pace but don’t be too slow.
- Stop to catch your breath whenever you are tired
- Don’t ever sit down anywhere along the way, you won’t want to get back up again!
- Try to hike in a group and encourage and help each other whenever needed.
You can also opt to for a horse ride and after 45 min there’s the cafeteria where you can rest and stop to enjoy tea. The toilets here are surprisingly nice and clean. After another 45 minutes, you arrive at a second stop where you have to bid the horse goodbye. You have no option but to hike the rest of the trail as horses aren’t allowed beyond it. The horseback ride is only 600 Bhutanese Ngultrums (10-11USD) and it’s well worth it if you aren’t much of a hiker. But you may have to inform your guide beforehand so that he can organize it in time.
As you continue to climb up the trail, you’ll pass by random shrines along the way in the forests. As you get closer to the monastery, there are 850 steps (both up and down) that you have to climb before you get to the entrance.. As you start to take on the steps, you’ll also notice prayer flags all over the sides of the walkway. Since the Tiger’s Nest is a pilgrimage site, people have strung prayer flags in the final end of the trail leading up to the monastery. You’ll see a waterfall to the left and a short wooden bridge to cross. After the bridge it’s about 2-5 minutes of uphill steps and then you’re at the entrance of the Tiger’s Nest!
Some Interesting Facts:
- The Taktsang Monastery is made up of four temples and a collection of residential shelters that are uniquely designed to rest on the cliff. Wooden bridges and stairs carved into the cliff connect the buildings. Each building has a balcony with a beautiful view of the Paro Valley 900m below.
- There are several paths leading to the monastery. The most popular path takes you through a pine forest and past the colorful prayer banners that protect the temple from evil spirits. Another path is from the north passing through a plateau called “A Hundred Thousand Fairies.” There are also paths for mule and pony treks; however they do not go all the way to the top.
- The big prayer wheel in the courtyard of the main shrine is rotated every morning by the monks that marks the beginning of a new day.
- The Tiger’s Nest earns visits from royalty. In 2015, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Princess Kate Middleton made the trek to the monastery while visiting Bhutan.
- Many caves surround the monastery. Two of them worth visiting are Tholu Phuk and Pel Phuk. These were supposedly the first caves Guru Rinpoche visited and meditated in. Today monks meditate and live in those caves for years as part of their religious practice.
- Sometime during March end or early April, the 10th day of that Buddhist Lunar Calendar, the Paro Tsechu Festival is held at grounds of the magnificent Rinpung Dzong in the Paro Valley. This festival honors and remembers Guru Rinpoche as he had performed dances in the valley in the 7th century. The three-day festival consists of various Mask Dance performances to vanquish off evil spirits and praise spirits of life and health. Visiting the monastery during the festival is a big draw as you experience ancient preserved Buddhist traditions and cultural history blended together even today. However, the Paro valley is more likely to be busy and crowded around this time and flights and bookings have to be had months earlier as there’s always a dead rush with everyone wanting to travel to Bhutan at the same time to witness the Festival.
TRAVEL TO BHUTAN WITH YAK HOLIDAYS INT’L AND DISCOVER THE BEST BHUTAN WITH US..
Laya Bhutan is a remote village in Gasa District in far north Bhutan
LAYA BHUTAN 3850 m
Coordinates : 28.06362 North: 89.6828 East
4 h 11 min (97.5 km) Punakha to Gasa, and a two day hard trek from Gasa to Laya.
Laya, Bhutan is a remote village in Gasa District in far north Bhutan, very close to the Tibetan border. It is inhabited by the indigenous Layap people, and is the highest inhabited settlement in the Bhutan. The hike from Gasa may be arduous, but its worth the effort.
Inhabited by the Layap tribe, who are akin to Tibetans.. They actually settled from Tibet several centuries ago. Population about 3000, approx 140 households. They call their village the “BEYUL”, or the hidden land. The distinct attire of Layap women wearing conical pointed bamboo hats is so unique, though the men have stopped wearing their original traditional dress. Yaks are herded, which is the main way of sustenance.
Some facts about Laya.
- Theres a Lakhang in the village, one another above.. In 2002, a school was started with 110 students. Above the school is an old temple,..where the Zhabdrung stayed when he first came to Bhutan . Some of his belongings are still there, a precious stone and a big brass jar full of water.
- In 1944, there was a major flood in Laya, glacial of course.
- In 1959-60, Tibetan refugees arrived with the livestock and Layaps bought yaks from them for only Nu 3 or 4 per head!
- Around 700 sheep were given by the government but they all died within 2 months, probably from eating poisonous grass.
- The first tourists arrived in 1987.
- In 1996, solar lighting was installed.
- In 1998, mountains bears attacked yak calves, killing 20-30. In 1999 wild dogs killed several yaks. There are several stories of cats of all sizes attacking their cattle.
- Above Laya are the HOLY Lakes, @ 4450m, Kharkhil Tsho, Paro Tsho, Onemo Tsho.
- Prosperous Layaps own more than 300 yaks.
- The conical hats of women are associated with fertility, and the fact that the women are actual yak herders. The same clothes are worn by the powerful local deity, Aum Chomo Nosey Gayem. The belief is to ensure that the yaks always remain healthy.
- In a traditional gesture of respect for visitors, Layap women, at the end of an evening entertainment, will remove their conical hats and throw them in a heap.
Advent of Buddhism in Bhutan
The advent of Buddhism in Bhutan began after the arrival of Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan in the 8th century, the Bon religion and the protector deities played a very vital role for different places, communities and clans across the entire spread of Bhutan. The thoughts and beliefs differed from place to place, from one valley to another, they were never the same at all. The differences were omnipresent, everywhere. But the guiding force, the pivot, the consolidator, the leader, the Guru wasn’t around.
And the Padmashambhava, the great lotus born saint was the Guru-in-waiting. The Guru knew exactly about the fate of Buddhism in India that it would be more than erased by the Mughal emperors. Even after the great flourishment of the Buddha Dharma in Tibet, it would actually, finally fall on a decline because of the Chinese. Nepal didn’t offer much scope, it was a predominantly Hindu nation and that didn’t actually connect to his likeliness. So Bhutan was his natural choice. Mountainous and remote, hidden in the inner Himalayas, the Mughals or the Chinese Hans had no chance to come to Bhutan and plunder the Buddha Dharma. So Bhutan was where the Buddha Dharma would prosper and flourish forever. That was his belief, his vision. And it came out true in so many ways as we see and analyze it now, wonder saint and philosopher, a gem and like they say diamonds are forever. It was also in Bhutan where he later hid several Buddhist holy scripts, religious documents, texts and relics, to be discovered and found by his chosen entity, Pema Lingpa of Bumthang, several centuries later in the 17th century.
Guru Rinpoche is actually credited with the founding of the Nyingma lineage, also known as the Red Hat sect of Mahayana Buddhism which became the dominant religion of Bhutan at that time.
He himself was found lying on top of a lotus flower floating on a pond. There are no records to prove where he was born or who his actual parents were. He just materialized on top of the flower one fine day! This was in the Swat valley, the historians say, in present day Pakistan. Quite big, handsome and impressive in size for a small child, the king took him as his own, adopted him as his son, made him the crown prince. So he grew up as a prince in his initial years, quite like prince Siddhartha, the eventual Buddha. So there is actually quite a similarity here if we can relate the two in the same context. As he grew up, he found it more arduous with his meaning of life in the garb of a prince. He could see, foresee several things that were to come and happen in the world. More like a Nostradamus with a very interesting religious twist. One fine day he decided to undergo such an act that could lead to his banishment from the kingdom. His father, the king had no choice but to banish him forever. Having set himself free, he traveled to several places, to Tibet and to Nepal which had so many similarities and parallels. Some historians say he must have been in Nepal when he got this invitation from the ailing Sindhu Raja of Bumthang.
Sindhu Raja was a powerful Indian king of Bumthang, who ruled from an iron fortress. Although a powerful monarch, Sindhu Raja lost his son and sixteen chieftains when feuding with another strong rival Indian king of the south named Nachhoe or “the big nose”. This incident so deeply disturbed Sindhu Raja that he ordered the desecration of all the temples dedicated to the chief deity and protector of Bumthang, Shelging Karpo. Shelging Karpo quickly retaliated to take revenge and performed a ritual that severed the life force of Sindhu, bringing him very close to death. Unable to find an antidote to his sickness, one of his close counsels sent an urgent appeal to Guru Rinpoche requesting for his supernatural powers to save the Raja. The great yogi agreed to the request, which he probably already knew, and after his arrival in Bumthang, meditated leaving a “jey” (imprint) of his “kur” (body) on a rock, now surrounded by the Kurjey Lhakhang. Hence the name Kurjey.
Guru Rinpoche was offered Sindhu Raja’s daughter, Tashi Kheudon. But he instead sent her to fetch water in a golden ewer. While she was away, the Guru transformed into eight manifestations and together, they started to dance in the field by the temple. The dances were so spectacular that every deity of the entire area appeared to watch them, all except the stony faced Shelging Karpo, who stayed away in his rocky hideout. But this was not to dishearten the Guru. When the princess returned, the Guru transformed her into five beautiful princesses each with a golden ewer. The golden sunlight emanating out of those ewers finally attracted Shelging Karpo, who appeared as a snow lion, which in turn was immediately recognized by the Guru. He himself transformed into a giant eagle, a Garuda, flew high up and subjugated the lion. The defeated Shelging Karpo thus gave back the life force to Sindhu Raja and was made to pledge to be a protector deity of Buddhism. Both the rival kings converted to Buddhism and Guru Rinpoche was allowed to preach Buddhism in their respective kingdoms. To seal the agreement, the Guru planted his staff in the ground at the temple in Bumthang. Its cypress tree descendants, the national tree of Bhutan, continue to grow and tower over the area at Kurjey Lhakhang till this date.
This event marked the beginning of the Dharma taking root in Bhutan, and a body imprint of Guru Rinpoche meditating in a nearby cave serves as a tribute to this occasion. So this was how Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rinpoche, which later went on to become the state religion of the nation. But this divine connection between Guru Rinpoche and Sindhu Raja is something that we sometimes forget to remember and recognize.
The eight sacred dances also marked the beginning of the introduction of Tshechu(s) in Bhutan featuring the famous mask dances which have then been repeated year after year for centuries till today. So the first ever Tshechu in Bhutan was conducted by Guru Rinpoche in Bumthang! Tshechu, which literally means “Day 10” of any particular Buddhist lunar month, featuring the mask dances and religious festivals are now conducted in all the districts of Bhutan. On the final day of a Tshechu, a massive thangka painting, called the Thongdrel is displayed for public early in the morning and rolled up again before sunrise, which features Guru Rinpoche and his two principal cohorts and his eight manifestations, to be displayed again the following year on the same exact date.
Dear Sithar and Bhim,
Greetings from England
It was very good to meet you both the other day and we thank you for the kind gift of the book on Bhutan, it has pride of place on our coffee table in our lounge and has already been admired by family and friends.
We would also like to thank you very much for the excellent arrangements that made our tour so very memorable. It is the first time we have arranged this type of holiday directly with a tour operator in the country we are visiting, however you not only made it very easy, the communication was always clear, concise and timely. This gave us great confidence and we loved the flexibility in putting the itinerary together.
I know originally we were going to fly back from Bumthang to Paro but flights were not available because of the festival. We are really glad this was the case in the end as it gave us more time to spend with Lal and Dawa and it would have been an anticlimax to part in Bumthang.
Both Lal and Dawa are a credit to Yak holidays, they made the trip very special and even the long drives were filled with laughter and didn’t seem long at all. We have made 2 friends there and are keeping in touch.
Dowa’s driving was very safe and comfortable and at the same time we made good progress. We very much appreciate Lal’s guiding skills and know we got to do and see more than many other tourists.
We were treated as friends, not just guests, at every hotel both Lal and Dawa ensured we had the best possible room and ensured we were settled in before they left us. Lal briefed us both each evening and first thing the following morning ensuring we were happy and to discuss anything we wanted to see or buy during the trip.
We appreciate the hard work by all at Yak holidays, many thanks from us both.
Martin and Dee
Bhutan Tour Info
Post Box No : 1056
Street : Ladroe Lam
Thimphu : Kingdom of Bhutan
Office : +975-2-338198 / 338199
Mobile : +975-17726254 / 77280724
Fax : +975-2-338201
Email: [email protected]