Land of Thunder Dragon (Druk Yul)
It’s been almost a month since I’ve been away. June has always been a month for me to clock my travels. Since I’ve turned 30 this year, I wanted to challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone. That explains why I decided to embark on a solo trip to Bhutan.
Bhutan is dubbed as the ‘happiest’ country in the world for many reasons. It is officially the only country in the world to measure national happiness.
This Buddhist state understands that happiness is not dependent on how well the country’s economy is doing but how ‘happy’ their people are.
I’ve gone through a quarter of my life, but I’m still figuring out what happiness is all about. Perhaps spending a week in Bhutan would somehow enlighten me on what happiness is?
After watching Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay on TED talks, I was so inspired to find out how Bhutan can preserve its biodiversity and produce clean energy without harming the environment. I had to find out how this green nation can put our environment first above everything else. Shouldn’t we be putting our Mother Earth first on the list as earthly citizens?
I knew I could get some answers by visiting Bhutan. I was determined to set foot on this land.
After contemplating for about a month or so, I decided to go ahead with my Bhutan travels this year June. I booked a tour package with Druk Asia, a reputable Bhutan tour agency which is based in Singapore. They seemed to be a somewhat reliable agency based on the positive online reviews about their services and tour packages.
True enough, there were reliable and efficient. I signed up for the 7-Day Essential Bhutan Tour Package with DrukAsia, and they did all the necessary paperwork and travel arrangements. Their travel agent, whom I have been conversing with me via email, has been very responsive. I was only required to submit a copy of passport online and pay via bank transfer.
You will need to apply for VISA to fly into Bhutan unless you’re a Bhutanese or Indian National. So the agency applied VISA for me on my behalf
In general, I am satisfied with their service, but some things just can’t be controlled. I don’t think I had a fantastic experience with my tour guide but at least, everything else went smoothly. There was a hiccup during the trip, and I shall share more about the incident in my upcoming blog posts.
They also offer the rent of traditional Bhutanese costume to clients too. For the ladies, you will be wearing the Kira and for the men, the Gho. You can wear it anytime during the trip. I highly recommend that you give it a try because it is fun to take photos in the costume as keepsakes.
It looks like Bhutan is getting a significant share of its tourism dollars from Singapore. As foreigners to the country, we would need to the tourism tax tariffs of USD100 which is inclusive in the tour package.
In total, I forked out about $3000 for this trip. The air ticket itself is about $1,200, and it is not cheap. Considering that there isn’t much amenities or entertainment provided onboard. Since it is the non-peak season, it is considered to be much less expensive than the usual. (However, I later found out that there are other cheaper Bhutan travel packages run by Bhutanese locals which were equally good.)
Since it is the non-peak season, it is considered to be much less expensive than the usual. (However, I later found out that there are other cheaper Bhutan travel packages run by Bhutanese locals which were equally good.)
Flight to Bhutan via DrukAir
From Singapore to Kolkata
It seems like DrukAir is the only airline that flies directly from Singapore to Bhutan with a pitstop at Kolkata, India. It was a 4-hour flight to Kolkata and another 45 minutes flight to Paro in Bhutan.
The plane was run down, and the only comforting thing is that the in-flight meals were not too bad. But the plane we took from Paro back to Singapore seems newer and more modern. Still, there wasn’t any form of entertainment onboard.
I read somewhere that you should be seated on the left side of the plane when you are flying from Singapore to Paro so that you can enjoy the beautiful view of the Himalayan ranges.
Thankfully, I got to sit on the right side of the plane when we were flying back from Paro to Singapore. I could see Mount Everest peeking through the clouds.
Do you know that you got to be one of the top pilots in Bhutan to fly the plane through the Himalayan range? It’s not easy flying into Paro where you have to fly passed many tall mountains to get to the valley where Paro town resides.
We had breakfast onboard, and they served us some Briyani-looking rice with curry along with a croissant, yogurt, and fruits. It was quite a decent breakfast, but I did not have much appetite because I was quite sleep-deprived after having to wake up at 4 am to catch this 6.45 am flight.
Most of the passengers onboard were either Singaporeans or Indian nationals who were flying to Kolkata. Judging the number of Singaporeans onboard, you could say that a majority of the tourists entering Bhutan are Singaporeans.
From Kolkata to Paro
On the flight from Kolkata to Paro, they offered us Vegetarian sandwiches which is mainly just cheese with some sauce similar to mayonnaise. After 45 minutes, we finally reached our destination! I remembered that the air smelt exceptionally fresh!
Paro International Airport
As you can see from the photos below, the airport is indeed very undeveloped and ‘primitive.’ It’s a small airport with only one terminal. I believe there’s only one cafe inside the airport that sells beverages and snacks.
The airport is open during the daytime only and closes in the evening. As with every homes, offices, and building, you will see the photo of the King of Bhutan together with the Queen and their son. Both the young King and Queen are very well-respected by the locals there.
My Tour Guide
I had my private tour guide and driver arranged by DrukAsia. I requested for a female tour guide since the driver would most likely be a male, it would be nice to have a female companion around.
She is only a year younger than me so we had no problems communicating at all. However, she wasn’t as enthusiastic as I thought a tour guide should be. To be honest, there were times where I felt that she wasn’t really present and showed a lack of enthusiasm. She would ask me if I needed her accompaniment to tour various sights when I thought it was expected of the guide to be there throughout unless I wanted to be left alone.
On the other hand, I had a good driver. It is comforting to know that at least there is one kind soul who is there on the lookout for me. I was thankful that they assigned me a really skillful driver who had been very helpful and kind. He would make sure that I am seated comfortably throughout the rides. I felt that he was way more attentive than my guide. Both of us were born in the same year, and I guess that made it easier for us to communicate as well.
Getting used to the High Altitude
In case you didn’t know, the altitude in Bhutan is much higher than what we are used to. Paro, for example, is about 2195 meters above sea level. In comparison, Singapore is no more than 15 meters above sea level. What a huge contrast! But overall, I did not have any altitude sickness or any breathing difficulties.But overall, I did not have any altitude sickness or any breathing difficulties.
The only problem I encounter was the long winding roads with many sharp turns. It has not made any easier for me as I tend to have motion sickness. The road was curvy, and if you have motion sickness like me, you might have to pop an anti-vomiting pill.
Heart of Bhutanese People – Religion
Okay, so where should I begin?
Bhutan has such a rich history and cultural background. Many of the temples built there are dated all the way back to the 14th century. This is a country who holds on strongly to their own set of traditions which have been passed on from generations to generations.
Buddhism is a religion which is widely practiced here in Bhutan. To be more specific, the official religion of Bhutan is Vajrayana Buddhism, which originates from Medieval India. This similar form of Buddhism had spread across Tibet and East Asia.
That explains why the Bhutanese culture is somewhat quite similar to Nepalese and Tibetan culture. I was surprised to know that some of my friends thought that Bhutan is part of Nepal! Bhutan is actually a country on its own and is located right above India, just below China on the world map. I hope this informative bit has been enlightening for you too.
I hope this informative bit has been enlightening for you too.
All of the meals I had in Bhutan were all buffet style. The food is relatively quite good, and they tasted just like our regular Chinese dishes. The hotel itself usually provides both breakfast and dinner. For lunch, we would dine at nearby restaurants.
The restaurants would often serve a few vegetable dishes and a meat-based dish (usually chicken) along with red Bhutanese rice. The red Bhutanese rice is their local variety of medium-grain rice which is chewier and fluffier than white rice.
Sometimes they would serve warm soup along with the dishes. I tried their boiled vegetable and pumpkin soup, but there were not as flavourful as the Chinese-style soups we have in Singapore. They probably did not use pork bones to cook their soup which explains the lack of depth and flavor into the soup. Thus, it tasted rather bland to me.
For desserts, they would either serve a scoop of ice cream or fruits like watermelon. The tour package I bought is inclusive of all meals except beverages. Say if you order a bottle of coke, you will need to pay for it.
What to Wear in Bhutan
It’s summer in Bhutan. During the day, it was warm. But on some days, it can get slightly chilly especially after a light shower. Yes, there is occasional rainfall during summer.
As the night falls, the temperature would drop drastically to about 10 degree Celsius. It is cooler in Paro and Thimphu than in Punakha. In fact, it is super warm and humid in Punakha since Punakha has a much lower altitude. It was very sunny in Punakha during the day, and it can quite warm in the evenings.
The higher the altitude, the colder it is. It was freezing at the mountain leading to Haa Valley. Thus it is best to dress in layers.
As for the locals living there, they usually wear their traditional costumes on a daily basis. Only very few of them would deck out in stylish outfits like T-shirts and jeans.
Hotels in Bhutan
I stayed at 3-star hotels which I handpicked personally from the list of hotels found on their website . All of the hotels I chose were relatively good except for one hotel which I will mention again in the upcoming post.
My only qualms are the loud barking noises made by the stray dogs at night. Other than that, everything was okay. If you wish to start in a four or five-star hotel, you will need to top up some money on your own.
Meanwhile, check out the summary of my 7-day Essential Bhutan itinerary with Druk Asia!
Day 1 ( 3 June) From Singapore to Paro
- Flight from Singapore to Kolkata then to Paro International Airport
- Lunch at Thimphu
- National Memorial Chorten
- Simply Bhutan Museum
- Centenary Farmer’s Market
- Check-in Hotel Osel
- Dinner at Hotel Osel
- Breakfast at Hotel Osel
- Wangditse Day Hike
- Changangkha Lhakhang
- Institute of Zorig Chusum
- Bhutan Post Office/Postal Museum
- Buddha Point
- Walk around Thimphu Town
- Dinner at Namgay Heritage Hotel
Day 3 (5 June): From Thimphu to Punakha
- Dochula Pass
- Lunch at Hotel Lobesa, Punakha
- Druk Wangyai Chortens
- Chhimi Lhakhang Temple (Fertility Temple)
- Punakha Dzong
- Pho Chhu Suspension Bridge
- Dinner at Hotel Lobesa
- Paro Valley
- Paro Dzong
- Museum in Paro
- Walk around Paro Town
- Dinner at Gangtey Palace in Paro
- Breakfast at Gangtey Palace
- Chele La Pass
- Haa Valley
- White Temple
- Dinner at Raven’s Nest Hotel
- Breakfast at Raven’s Nest Hotel
- Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest)
- Drukgyal Dzong
- Kyichu Lhakhang Temple
- Dinner at Uma Paro (*Special arrangement)
- Flight back from Paro to Singapore
Stay tuned for my upcoming post as I narrate my story in Bhutan with full details on my blog!
Hope you find this blog post useful! If you have any questions, do let me know in the comment box below.