By Chris Urban
Travel in the 21stcentury doesn’t often feel much like exploring anymore. Just when you think you’ve had a real Indiana Jones type of experience hiking a wadi in central Oman, you run headfirst right into a Starbucks. A few years ago, my wife and I were living in and had explored much of India. We had just been to Everest Base Camp, had seen a lot of other parts of Asia, and were looking for new adventures. It was around that time that we heard of Bhutan, “the Land of the Thunder Dragon.” Everything about it called to us as travelers and explorers.
Some people know of the iconic Tiger’s Nest, but few people know where it is, and even fewer can tell you how to get there. There are limited flights into Bhutan due to the fact that there are only 12 pilots in the world certified to land at the country’s only international airport. Those 12 pilots happen to be employed by Bhutan’s national airline and its subsidiary whose websites feel more contemporary with Pan Am than Expedia. Add to that expensive visa fees, a minimum spend-per-day requirement in country, and a limited number of visas to western travelers per year, and Bhutan is not an easy place to get acquainted with.
These complicated logistics kept Bhutan just beyond our reach until some friends put us in touch with a local tour company that could arrange the details. Heavenly Bhutan Travels arranged our visa paperwork, arranged all our flights and lodging, and provided us with the perfect itinerary for a long weekend visit. One of the most unique aspects of traveling to Bhutan is paying for the trip. Ever since Al Gore invented the internet, we’ve become accustomed to avoiding email scams trying to get us to wire money to some prince in a far-flung country. So, when Heavenly Bhutan instructed us to wire several thousand dollars to the government of the Kingdom of Bhutan ( a monarchy) we were understandably suspicious! The company reassured us that this was the most secure way (and indeed the only way) to pay for a trip to Bhutan. So, with all of the details squared away, and the integrity of our bank account still intact, we were finally off to Bhutan!
The approach and landing into Paro International Airport is as beautiful as it is thrilling. The plane drops into a valley between the mountains, circles in the valley until it’s lined up for final approach, then banks hard left just before wheels-down to narrowly avoid a hill right in front of the runway. After this hair-raising but successful landing, we headed straight to Thimphu to explore the Bhutanese seat of government, the Thashicchoe Dzong. A fortress originally constructed in the 1600s, it was repurposed in 1968 to be the seat-of-monarchy and religious leaders of Bhutan. It is quite literally split in half to house both the government administrative offices and a monastery. With hardly any tourists present, we were able to enjoy it surrounded only by monks. After the Dzong, we went to the Buddha Dordenma statue situated in the mountains on the outskirts of Thimphu. The statue was built in 2015 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 4th king and is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world. Much like the Dzong, there were hardly any tourists present. Tranquility seemed to emanate from the giant Buddha watching over us and the serene valley spread out below. The Thimphu Farmer’s Market is an excellent opportunity to get more acquainted with the locals. It was truly special to explore the rows of stalls and vendors selling everything from smoked yak cheese to local fruits, vegetables, and souvenirs from the countryside.
Back in Paro the next day, we started out at the Ringpung Dzong, the focal point of the city, perched in the hills overlooking the city center. Also known as the Paro Dzong, it is the administrative and monastic center of the western region of Bhutan. Originally built in 1644 and one of the few examples of original construction in the country, it is on a list of sites submitted to UNESCO by Bhutan to be added as a World Heritage Site. The only reason it probably hasn’t made it on the list yet is because the good people at UNESCO probably haven’t made it there yet! Much like in Thimphu, we were shocked and pleasantly surprised at how few tourists there were.
It was in Paro that we got to stay in one of our favorite hotels we’ve ever had the privilege to stay at, the Gangtey Palace. Located directly opposite of the Paro Dzong, the Gangtey is an old palace constructed over 100 years ago for the Governor of Paro and only recently renovated into a hotel. The property had sweeping views of the Himalayas to the west, spectacular views of the Dzong right across the valley, and views of the city of Paro below. Sitting on the patio and admiring the view while writing postcards to our families and drinking a cold Druk Lager was the perfect end to a great day exploring Paro.
Hiking to the famed Tiger’s Nest was a highlight but our favorite experience was exploring a 16thcentury Buddhist temple-cum-fortress hidden in the shadows of the Paro Dzong. Inside the temple, hanging on the walls were shields and swords that looked like they probably hadn’t moved since the 1500s. Once again, on the grounds of the temple it was just us, the monks, and a single Bhutanese family. I still haven’t been able to find any information about this site on Tripadvisor or the internet. It was an amazing feeling to explore a site that seemed unknown and un-Instagrammed!
Bhutan is a country trapped in time, home to a people happily embracing their ancient culture with no iced caramel frappuccinos. In the final episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain said of Bhutan, “It’s beautiful! I’m glad it hasn’t been f****ed up yet by the world.” My wife and I wholeheartedly agree. FP