Bhutan is a mystical land, which is no surprise for a country that calls itself the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Bhutan’s history is almost inseparable from Buddhist folklore, which in turn has helped to shape the country’s stunning landscape.
Colossal fortresses and monasteries – dedicated to ancient monks believed to have flown on the backs of tigers – tower over Bhutan’s spectacular mountain peaks, forests, and crystal clear rivers.
Culture, tradition and Buddhism remain at the heart of this unique country, most notably in the ancient dance festivals that take place across the country throughout the year.
Gross National Happiness is considered of higher importance than GDP, while portraits of the beloved King and Queen of Bhutan are found in every home and temple.
With the exception of those holding an Indian, Bangladeshi or Maldivian passport, all visitors to Bhutan need a visa to enter the country. If you’re going further than the cities of Thimpu or Paro then you need to book a trip through a tour operator that is registered with the Bhutanese Department of Tourism.
We booked our tour of Bhutan through Druk Asia who took care of our visas, arranged our itinerary as well as all accommodation on our trip. Druk Asia also assigned us our guide and driver for the whole of our 10 days in Bhutan.
As well as a wide range of set tours, Druk Asia can also arrange bespoke itineraries for personalised tours of Bhutan. This way you you can create your own Bhutan tour itinerary depending on which parts of the country you would like to travel to and what you’d like to do and see.
Planning a tour of Bhutan is certainly not cheap.
Bhutan changed the rules and the cost of visiting the country after reopening its borders to tourists after the Covid 19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, all visitors to Bhutan needed to book their trip through a tour operator registered with the Bhutanese Department of Tourism.
Previously, the price of tours included the cost of arranging visas, all accommodation and transportation within Bhutan, plus the cost of an officially licensed guide and the services of a driver.
The cost of the tour also included a mandatory $65 Sustainable Development Fee, a tax that the Bhutanese government reinvested into public services for the people of Bhutan.
Since reopening in 2022, the Bhutanese government has changed this fee system. The Sustainable Development Fee is now between $200-250 a day.
Also, the cost of extras – such as accommodation and transportation – is no longer covered by the Sustainable Development Fee, but are now an additional cost.
The cost of flights to and from Bhutan are also an extra cost, as they were before the changes were made to the Sustainable Development Fee.
This makes Bhutan an even more expensive destination than it already was pre-pandemic. However, the money raised from the Sustainable Development Fee is invested back into tourism initiatives and to offset Bhutan’s carbon footprint. It also discourages over-tourism, something Bhutan is keen to avoid.
One upside of these changes is that you no longer need a guide if you’re visiting the main cities of Thimphu and Paro. However, if you plan to venture anywhere else in Bhutan, you will still need to hire an official guide.
Ultimately the cost of a trip to Bhutan will depend on the length of your stay and what you plan to see while you’re there.
Even with the introduction of the Sustainable Development Fee, tour operators like Druk Asia will be able to organise a full itinerary, as well as arrange your flights to and from Bhutan for an additional cost.
Tours of Bhutan are fairly flexible. You can choose from a pre-agreed tour or you can create a bespoke route around Bhutan through Druk Asia.
We agreed our 10 day Bhutan itinerary prior to arriving with Druk Asia.
• Here is the breakdown of our 10 day Bhutan itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive into Paro and drive Thimphu
Day 2: Thimphu
Day 3: Thimphu to Punakha
Day 4: Punakha to Bumthang
Days 5 and 6: Bumthang
Day 7: Bumthang to Phobjikha Valley
Day 8: Phobjikha Valley to Paro
Day 9: Hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Day 10: Relaxing morning before departing Bhutan
Flying over the Himalayas on the approach into Paro and Tachog Lhakhang, on the way to Thimphu
We arrived at Paro airport at around 8.00am on a beautifully crisp and sunny winter morning. Outside we meet Tshering and Jigme, our guide and driver for the next ten days.
From Paro it’s an hour’s drive to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.
The drive is the first chance to see Bhutan’s gorgeous landscape, passing through gorgeous wide valleys parted by slow trickling rivers. Stray cats, dogs and cows watch the world go slowly by, and dried red chilies are piled up for sale next to each bend in the road.
One of the only cities in the world without traffic lights, Thimphu is a narrow city at the bottom of a deep green valley.
With a population of around 100,000 people it’s the largest city in Bhutan, and the number of construction sites suggests that it’s growing.
A view of Thimphu and the National Memorial Chorten
Our first stop in Thimphu is at the National Memorial Chorten, a grand memorial stupa built in 1974 to honour Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Bhutan’s third King.
The white and gold tower burns bright in the strong morning sun and is one of Thimphu’s most prominent landmarks.
The memorial’s interior is spread over three levels, each built around several colourful shrines elaborately decorated with bold wall paintings and imposing carved figures of Buddhist deities.
Then it’s a short drive to Buddha Dordenma, a spectacular and colossal golden statue of Buddha that sits high in the hills over Thimphu. At almost 180 feet tall this is one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world.
The Buddha is surrounded by a vast open terrace carved out of the side of the valley, and flanked by 37 equally dazzling dakinis, known as mothers of Buddha.
Buddha Dordenma’s interior is fittingly ornate. On one side the walls are decorated with exquisite paintings that depict the life story of Buddha. On another, 20,000 twelve inch statues of Buddha are encased in the walls.
In the centre of the room is a 16 foot golden seated statue of Buddha with four faces surrounded by eight Bodhisattvas. The interior is still under construction, and once complete the whole structure will be home to 130,000 Buddha statues.
After lunch we’re taken for a stroll around the centre of Thimphu and to a farmer’s market. The market is filled with stalls stocked with mountains of powerful chilies, spices, incense powders, red rice and cubes of Bhutanese yak’s cheese.
There’s also plenty of meat on sale, though Tshering tells us that it’s all imported. Killing an animal for consumption is illegal in Bhutan, so there are no slaughterhouses in the country.
All manner of herbs and spices on sale at Thimphu’s farmer’s market
The second day in our Bhutan itinerary begins with an easy hike through the beautiful forests over Thimphu.
It’s a two hour round trip along a snowy forest path lined with fluttering prayer flags and wonderful views across the city, which sits at the bottom of the valley, smothered in winter morning mist and cloudless blue skies.
After the hike we head to the nearby Motithang Takin Preserve to catch a glimpse of Bhutan’s national animal. Bhutanese takins are endangered in the wild and a large section of the forest has been turned into an enclosure.
Resembling a cross between a cow and a goat, according to Bhutanese legend, the takin was the creation of Drukpa Kunley. Drukpa Kunley was a 15th century Buddhist monk known as the Divine Madman who we’ll later discover looms large over Bhutanese history.
Takin at Motithang Takin Preserve and chili dries in the sun at Simply Bhutan
Back in the centre of Thimphu we visit Simply Bhutan, a small heritage museum that details the history and tradition behind many customs unique to Bhutan.
There’s also a spot of traditional Bhutanese lunch provided, consisting of staples such as red rice, buckwheat pancakes, and one of Bhutan’s most famous dishes, ema datshi, also known as chili cheese.
Afterwards we head to the local archery range. Archery is Bhutan’s national sport, and tournaments between two teams can last for days, and are known for being rowdy and boozy affairs.
The Bhutanese twist on archery is to make it practically impossible; the target is just 90 centimetres tall and set a distance of 145 metres – more than the length of a football pitch.
As we watch the archers take part in target practice, incredibly, as many arrows hit the target as fall just short or wide.
The third day is one of the busiest of our Bhutan itinerary. From Thimphu it’s a long and bumpy drive west to Punakha.
On the edge of Thimphu is Dochula Pass, where 108 stone stupas stand on a small elevated circular hill in the centre of the road on the peak of the mountain road.
The memorial stones were built in 2004 to honour the Bhutanese soldiers who died in a conflict with Indian insurgents the previous year.
Across from Dochula Pass are some of the clearest views of the Bhutanese stretch of the Himalayas, though they can often be covered by cloud. Amongst them is Gangkar Puensum, probably the tallest unclimbed mountain in the world.
Mountaineering is illegal in Bhutan, partly in the belief that the mountains are home to protective deities, but also to prevent them from becoming filled with the same kind of junk that plagues Mount Everest.
A snowy Dochula Pass and looking out over the Punakha region of Bhutan
From Dochula it’s a frequently bumpy and often perilous drive towards Punakha. Bhutan’s main road (and there is only one main road) is in places little more than a dirt track.
The sheer beauty of Bhutan’s countryside is a welcome distraction from the state of the road. The journey climbs and descends around valleys wrapped in a thick veil of trees.
Traditional Bhutanese homes appear to float over the landscape, dotted around the mountainsides for as far as the eye can see. Stray dogs sleep at the side of the road, and at one point a solitary monkey watches on as we rumble past.
The journey to Punakha is broken up by a visit to Chimi Lhakhang, a small monastery that dates from the 15th century. In more recent times it has also become known as the Phallus Temple.
Chimi Lhakhang is famously associated with Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman credited with the creation of the takin.
A Buddhist monk at Chimi Lhakhang monastery and phallus symbols painted on a building in Bhutan
Drukpa Kunley is also famous for his unorthodox Buddhist methods, including his belief that achieving spiritual enlightenment could be aided by a voracious sex life.
According to the legend, Drukpa Kunley defeated an evil demon where Chimi Lhakhang now stands by subduing it with his phallus. Phallus paintings and statues have adorned houses and buildings all over Bhutan ever since, in the belief that they will help keep evil deities at bay.
A pilgrimage to Chimi Lhakhang is also said to be able to help women who are struggling to conceive. Inside the small small temple is an album of photos of children sent by numerous woman who have given birth after visiting Chimi Lhakhang.
From Sopsokha it’s a short drive north to Punakha Dzong, majestically located at the bottom of a valley in front of the sparkling crystal clear and fish-filled waters of the Mo Chhu river.
Bhutan’s second oldest and second largest fortress, Punakha Dzong is immense.
A huge banyan tree sits in the central courtyard in front of a magnificent central tower. The courtyard is flanked by monastic living quarters and local administrative offices, featuring elaborately decorated balconies adorned with traditional Bhutanese architectural details.
There’s a palpable sense of history throughout Punakha Dzong. It’s easy to see why Punakha Dzong was chosen as the setting for the royal wedding between the current King and Queen of Bhutan in 2011.
There’s another early start on day four of our Bhutan tourin order to tackle the 200 kilometre drive from Punakha to Bumthang, where we’ll spend the next three nights.
Once again, the sensational scenery makes the entire journey utterly captivating. Bobbling along at over 2000 metres above sea level, the views are more like those that you’d expect to see from a plane window, eye level with huge cloud formations and overlooking endless mountain ranges covered with thick, deep forests.
A scenic tea stop and the Trongsa valley in central Bhutan
Due to the long journey, there’s only one stop on today’s agenda, which is Trongsa Dzong, the largest fortress in Bhutan. This gigantic fortress is sprawled across the enormous green valley below.
At the entrance we’re met by a group of jittery monkeys, playfully leaping around the rooftops of the buildings below the fortress.
Trongsa Dzong nestled into the valley
Trongsa Dzong is a warren of corridors that lead to a series of interconnected courtyards. Framed by grand walkways and staircases that shoot off in every direction, the main courtyard has a wonderful view of the lush valley that spreads below as far as the eye can see.
The inner temple is another fantastic expression of colourful devotion, dominated by a towering golden statue of Buddha. Bright hanging fabrics, thick golden columns and the customary bold Buddhist wall paintings fill the temple’s interior.
There’s still another couple of hours to go to until we reach Jakar, the town more commonly known as Bumthang, our base for the next three days.
At the heart of central Bhutan, Bumthang could easily be mistaken for the lush alpine hills of Switzerland. The crunchy mountain terrain gives way to beautiful fresh green valleys and majestic pine forests.
We’re at the half way point in our 10 day Bhutan itinerary, which begins with a short drive to Kurjey Lhakhang, a sacred Buddhist site made up of three temples.
The earliest temple is devoted to Guru Rinpoche, a Buddhist master from the 8th century. The small, dark, atmospheric temple is built around a cave where it’s believed Guru Rinpoche left a back print in the rocks whilst meditating.
The larger neighbouring temple features another huge central Buddha statue, surrounded by statues of fourteen golden arhat embedded high into the typically ornate walls.
Kurjey Lhakhang and Jambey Lhakhang
A few minutes away is Jambey Lhakhang believed to be one of 108 temples built across Bhutan and Tibet in one day in 659. The interior corridors that surround the inner temple are decorated with ancient original paintings of Buddhist tales and deities, still vibrant despite their age.
Later, we drive through the town to reach Jakar Dzong, another imposing fortress that stands over Bumthang and the whole valley below.
With a narrow courtyard, Jakar Dzong feels claustrophobic compared to other fortresses; chaperoned on our tour by a small family of cats, the fortresses’ old balconies and thick stone staircases resemble a medieval European castle.
A portrait of The King and Queen of Bhutan outside Jakar Dzong Bhutan and inside Jakar Dzong
Our day ends with a stroll around the small town of Jakar, which is commonly known as Bumthang. Judging by the shops on the small but lively main street, Bhutanese tradition and modernity are cohabiting happily.
The well-stocked shops sell a little bit of everything, from handicrafts and yak’s cheese, to instant noodles and mobile phone top up cards.
Between the souvenir shops and convenience stores is the noticeable Western influence of karaoke bars, nightclubs and snooker halls.
Our sixth of our 10 days in Bhutan is also spent in Bumthang and begins with two more temples. Tamshing Lhakhang is a dark and cold temple, its corridors covered with more incredible timeworn Buddhist paintings.
On a table in one corridor is a 14th century cape made of iron links. Devotees carry the cape on their back whilst walking as many circumambulations of the temple as they can muster.
The second temple is Kenchogosum Lhakhang and is easily one of the most spectacular places of worship anywhere in the world.
The temple is a mind-blowing explosion of colour – even by Bhutan’s standards – consisting of an original 9th century temple inside a much larger temple added in the 14th century. Destroyed by fire in 2010, the outer temple has since been restored and is practically a work of art.
The interior of Kenchogosum Lhakhang is utterly overwhelming. Every inch of the walls are filled with Buddhist paintings of exquisite artistry. Expertly detailed paintings depict deities and the complete life story of Buddha in phenomenally sumptuous colours.
A deity painted on a wall of Tamshing Lhakhang and a door leading into Kenchogosum Lhanakhang
The temple’s thick columns are adorned with intricate gold-plated metalwork, whilst beautiful fabrics and tapestries of red, blue and yellow hang from the ceiling. Completely stunning, it is possibly the highlight of our 10 days in Bhutan.
After lunch we drive a little further west to another sacred site, the Burning Lake, a tiny fresh water lake between two rivers around thirty minutes from Bumthang.
Legend states that a Buddhist monk believed that sacred texts and treasures were buried in the lake many centuries ago. The monk jumped into the lake holding a burning butter lamp and descended underwater. He returned with a chest of treasure, religious scrolls and with the butter lamp still alight.
Our final stop of the day brings us to one of the least traditional stops on our Bhutan itinerary, a visit to a Swiss cheese factory. A trained cheese maker, Fritz Maurer moved to Bhutan from Switzerland nearly fifty years ago.
We’re given a tour of the small factory he founded by one of the staff who dutifully explains the process behind making Swiss cheese in Bhutan, followed by a tasting session.
Maurer has also branched out into other areas, and Red Panda, the locally brewed beer, is the perfect complement to the cheese.
The next morning we begin the long journey back towards western Bhutan, spending one night in the Phobjikha Valley, around half way between Bumthang and Thimphu. The long journey means that there are only a couple of stops in the day’s itinerary.
Gantey Monastery and the view of the Phobjikha valley
The first is Gangteng Monastery, a small monastery that sits at the top of a small picturesque village at the tip of a hill.
We continue along the gentle descent to the beautiful green valley below. At the bottom is the Black Necked Crane Centre, facing onto a beautiful expanse of protected land that the endangered birds migrate to each Autumn, making the journey over the Himalayas from Tibet.
We start early on day eight to continue the remainder of the long journey back to Paro. At the top of the valley are a group of dedicated yak herders, fresh from camping overnight in temperatures well below 0 degrees.
At the peak of the valley road, next to a stupa festooned with prayer flags, are sensational views of the Himalayan Mountains, with their jagged snowy peaks bathed in glorious sunshine.
A yak in Phobjikha Valley; a stupa en route; prayer flags and the Himalayas
After a late lunch we visit Paro Museum followed by Paro Fortress. Paro Museum is relatively small and documents much of what makes Bhutan unique.
The highlight of Paro Museum are the traditional masks worn during various masked dance festivals across Bhutan throughout the year. Elsewhere there are displays on Bhutan’s diverse wildlife and fauna, as well as various archaeological artifacts.
Wedged into the hillside above the town Paro Fortress dominates the entire valley, and from inside there are stunning views across Paro and far beyond. Far grander than Jakar Dzong, Paro Fortress is based around a domineering central tower in the middle of a colourful courtyard.
Decorative monastic and administrative offices frame the outer edge of the courtyard, whilst inside the fortresses’ temple are more beautiful wall paintings, protected behind hanging screens and glass.
Paro Fortress in the Paro Valley and a detail of Paro Fortress’ interior
The final full day of our 10 day Bhutan itinerary is reserved for the hike to its most iconic landmark, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The Tiger’s Nest Monastery, also known as Paro Taktsang, seems to levitate high above the Paro valley.
As with Kurjey Lhakhang temple in Bumthang, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery was built around a cave where the sacred Guru Rinpoche is believed to have meditated in the 9th century.
The Tiger’s Nest Monastery just a speck in the distance, and a part of the trek
According to the legend the guru flew to the caves on the back of a tigress, which is how the monastery gets its name. The temple is so sacred that the Bhutanese believe that visiting the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is equal to visiting 1000 other temples.
The famous view of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery suddenly appears at the end of a path, and that first sight of one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks is something never to forget.
The monastery consists of several small temples dedicated to Buddha and to Guru Rinpoche, the first of which was built in 1692.
Additional temples have been added over the centuries, and the whole site was extensively repaired following a devastating fire in 1998.
The cliff face is clearly visible inside several of the temples, and a small section cut from the floor in one shows a dagger like incision into the rocks beneath the temple.
The hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery and back to the base took around seven hours in total, including an hour spent inside the monastery. We spend our final night with Tshering and Jigme, the perfect hosts during our ten days in Bhutan, with a traditional Bhutanese meal in Paro.
The following day is the last of our ten days in Bhutan. The morning is set aside for recuperation following the previous day’s arduous trek to the Tigers Nest Monastery.
After breakfast we’re driving to Paro Airport where we bid farewell to Tshering and Jigme, our wonderful companions on our tour of Bhutan.
In the early afternoon our flight departs from Paro’s beautiful airport, back over Bhutan’s stunning scenery and view of the Himalayas.
Bhutan is without a doubt one of the most unique and beautiful countries that we’ve ever visited, and somewhere that we’d love to explore even further.
The recent changes to the Sustainable Development Fee certainly makes Bhutan an expensive holiday, but if you can afford to make it you will visit a spell-binding country that is like no other on earth.
The east of the country sees less visitors than the more frequented sights around Thimphu and Paro and is definitely on our bucket-list as a place to explore in our next Bhutan itinerary.
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