One of Goway Asia’s experts, Sarah, recently returned from a Globetrotting adventure in Bhutan. We sat down with Sarah for all the insights and inside tips on the Last Shangri-La, and the world’s only country to measure Gross National Happiness.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Bhutan?
I think one of the most common misconceptions is that obtaining a visa and entry to the country is restricted and difficult. People think that Bhutan puts limits of how many people can visit the country per year and entry is very restricted. This isn’t true. Visas are not restricted and I would describe the way they monitor tourism as regulated rather than restricted.
The country is very proud of their culture and it’s very important for them to maintain it. In order to do that, the government works closely with local tour operators in the country to ensure tourism is closely monitored. The government and local operators then coordinate with each other regarding the entry visa.
Local tour operators include the entry visa with their tour itinerary pricing when you book a tour in Bhutan. So, all you have to do to get a visa to Bhutan is book a tour with a local operator, have a copy of your passport, and they will take care of it. With very few exceptions, the only way to travel within the country is with one of these local tour operators. Once again, with very few exceptions, you cannot just show up and travel around Bhutan.
The one exception is, you can drive from West Bengal into Bhutan. Sometimes, Indian citizens can obtain an entry visa, drive into Bhutan and travel on their own. Having said that, I have no idea what’s involved or what the stipulations are for Indian citizens to obtain one. I was also advised by my guide that this doesn’t happen very often and they often still need to book with a tour operator, because some hotels in Bhutan only book with local operators and not directly with clients.
In terms of actually using the visa, it all went without issue. I just showed the paperwork at the airport in Delhi and Paro and was let through without issue. The same goes for the three other people I was travelling with. I would say it was more annoying using my visa for India than Bhutan.
So, to be clear, they don’t restrict or put limits on how many tourists can enter Bhutan. The government just works closely with local tour operators to ensure they keep an eye on how many people are visiting and how it’s influencing their economy, environment, and culture.
You did a lot of hotel inspections. What was your favourite and why?
I loved the Gangtey Lodge in Phobjikha Valley. It’s a boutique 5-star property overlooking the Gangtey Valley. The property has 12 luxury lodges, beautiful private lodges, and a very rustic feel with slate underfloor heating, nice big beds, fireplaces, and beautiful views of the valley. It was the only hotel we visited that included complimentary laundry with the room rate.
I also loved the atmosphere of the hotel. It felt like a spa, very relaxing with scents like Lemongrass and lavender here and there. It also felt like a little back woods oasis with all the stone, wood, and easily accessible trails if you wanted to go for a hike.
The lobby had a fireplace with couches and complimentary beverages on a table, all overlooking the valley. There was an old Bhutanese game set up as well that the staff teach guests to play when they visit.
It wasn’t a cookie cutter experience to stay there and I could see myself spending 3 days doing nothing but spa, hiking, and hanging out around the hotel and in my cozy room.
What was your favourite unique stay?
Hotel Dewachen in Pubjikha Valley was another favorite hotel stay. The hotel also overlooked the Gangtey Valley, it was a very rustic lodge type experience. My room was huge, probably the biggest bed I’ve ever slept on, with a cute little fireplace. I love boutique hotels and although this isn’t a luxurious option it is a very cute and rustic property, with great character, and a perfect location in the valley.
As a Goway Asia Expert having sold Bhutan for years, was there anything that surprised you?
I was surprised by how prevalent the monarchy is the people’s everyday lives. Our guide showed me a picture he had of the King making their national Chilli Cheese dish on his phone. His friend sent it to him. He also told me an interesting story about the King taking a bike ride, losing his security details, and going back to the palace by taking a cab on the street. I guess the cab driver didn’t know who he was so he didn’t get out in the rain to help with his bike and was very embarrassed later. I think it’s really nice that the monarchy there is just out there with the people.
What area would you recommend if clients wanted to extend into another country?
It depends how much time they have, we spent 7 days travelling and only got as far east as Pubjikha. Pubjikha was my favorite, very rural but also beautiful and untouched, with nature trails, hiking, mountain biking, and little temples everywhere.
Clients looking for the most comprehensive itinerary should go as far as Bumthang. I would say a 10-day itinerary if the clients don’t plan on going back would be best. They could fly from Paro to Bumthang and make their way back stopping in Gantey/Pubjikha, Punakha, Thimphu, ending in Paro again.
Are there any tips about travelling to Bhutan that agents might share with their clients to make their trip even more enjoyable?
There is one national highway in Bhutan that is still currently under construction. Our drive from Thimphu to Gangtey took about 6 hours, with a short stop of lunch. I was told this would have been 8-12 hours prior to a recent re-paving of the roads. The drive on the roads not yet paved is difficult and very bumpy.
It’s a windy road all along the mountains, with some parts right on the edge of the mountainside with no rail. There was a point where I wanted to get out and walk because we had to go so slowly and were still getting bumped around a lot. I could have walked for those parts and I was told that that’s what people used to do before the roads were done.
I couldn’t get a picture of the road or scenery on the unpaved portion of the roads because it was too consistently bumpy to hold a camera straight. We couldn’t stop to get pictures often because it’s one road, one lane, with other cars coming from the behind and in front of us.
I would have agents advise their clients of the road conditions so they are prepared and organize their days accordingly. That’s also why I’d recommend flying from Paro if you want to visit Bumthang, I wouldn’t ever recommend driving that far east because that’s where the roads haven’t been finished.
The drive from Thimphu to Gangtey isn’t an easy one either, so they shouldn’t try to pack too much into that day. Depending on how strenuous they want their itinerary to b,e they may want to take it easy the next day as well.
Do you have a favorite local dish?
Ema Datshi is their national dish, Bhutanese Chili and Cheese. I love spicy food and cheese so it was perfect for me.
What’s your absolute favourite photo of your entire trip?
I can’t pick a favorite picture but I did enjoy taking pictures with and of people on this trip. I have a picture of this little Bhutanese girl in traditional kira laughing at me over her father’s shoulder that’s really cute. The people there, including our driver/guide wear the traditional dress gho and kira, which I loved. Every once in a while, in the more modern cities of Thimphu and Paro you would see people wearing western clothing, but for the most part they still dress very traditionally.