When I first tried to interest my friends in a visit to the Kingdom of Bhutan, they were puzzled. What’s there to do other than find happy people there, they quizzed. While I had to pull up some images of gorgeous flowers (Rhododendrons, but more of that later) on the mountains, and pictures of the beautiful Queen Jetsun Pema (her Instagram is quite cool) to convince them, the decision was one we never regretted. We spent an amazingly happy week in Bhutan for a good many reasons.
From breath-taking sights (sometimes literally due to the physical exertion and high-altitude), to the overwhelming kindness of the Bhutanese people, many things about Bhutan left us with beautiful memories. While most of the people don’t seem to have much in material goods, they are more than happy to share what they do have with visitors to their land.
As the country’s quite a mystery to many – judging by how many questions people had for me after I returned – here’s a list of things you need to know to maximise your happiness on your visit to Bhutan. And yes, this country should definitely be on your bucket list of places to go.
For Instagram and photography enthusiasts:
1. Choose window seats on the right side of the plane to film the dramatic landing in Bhutan
To get into Bhutan from Singapore, you will likely take Drukair, their national airline. Druk – or a thunder dragon, is Bhutan’s national symbol which can also be found on their national flag! For now, the airline makes a 30 to 45-minute pit-stop at the Indian city of Guwahati before continuing on to Paro, Bhutan.
Remember to do online check-in two days before your flight, so that you can select your seats in advance.
The landing into Paro is something you’ll definitely want to film on hyperlapse. It’s a heart-stopping experience, where the pilot has to make a sharp turn (see gif above) through valleys, almost like a roller coaster ride. I’ve also heard that not many pilots are qualified to land at this airport, due to its challenging nature. For the best views, select seats on the right side of the plane when you check-in online.
2. Be prepared to climb for your shots
Bhutan is situated in the Himalayas. So, be prepared for a lot of mountain climbing, in order to get your perfect shot.
To get a unique top-down view of the famous Taktsang monastery, we climbed to a nearby temple even higher than the monastery.
Climbing up so high – to almost 3,500m above sea level – is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The most famous view of Bhutan has to be that of Tiger’s Nest, or Taktsang Monastery, an ancient monastery dating back to the 17th century perched on a cliff. Located more than 3,100 metres above sea level, we planned for this climb only towards the end of our trip. This is so to ensure that our bodies had more time to get accustomed to the higher-than-normal elevation of the land.
One of the most iconic views of Bhutan has to be of the Taktsang Monastery, which has a strong religious significance to the Bhutanese.
If you’re of reasonable fitness (meaning you exercise regularly), it’s not necessary to train in advance for the climb, which takes between 3-6 hours – depending on how often you stop. Hiking shoes are a must, as there are not many properly-paved roads.
3. Visit when the Rhododendrons bloom
Rhododendrons are a must-see when you’re in this region and adds a special touch to your photos of Bhutan. These flowers generally start blooming mid-April till about July, and can be found in red, white and pink shades. You will definitely see them during your climb up to Taktsang, if you’re there during the right months!
Many Bhutanese songs contain references to the rhododendron, which is a must-see when you’re in this region.
These Rhododendrons are sometimes compared to the famous Japanese Sakura blossoms.
We were lucky enough to also catch some cherry blossoms when we visited Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, so perhaps April is one of the best times to visit Bhutan.
Sakura, or cherry blossoms, which we stumbled upon when visiting the Memorial Chorten in Thimpu.
4. Request for a set of Kira or Gho for your photos
The Kira and Gho are the national traditional dresses for women and men respectively, and it’s a common sight around Bhutan. The Bhutanese are required to wear their national dress in official functions, including going to school, and to work.
The traditional dress for women, the Kira, often come in plain silk tops, and matched with a long striped skirt.
The Punakha Dzong (fortress) is one of the oldest and largest Dzongs in Bhutan, and where the Government of Bhutan used to be located.
I tried out the Kira and wore it for half a day, during my visit to Punakha Dzong – another must-visit in Bhutan. The silk blouse is quite loose-fitting, but the long cloth that’s used as a skirt is wound quite tightly and at times, restricts movement. It was quite a challenge for me to move about the Dzong in this outfit at the start, but I got used to it eventually.
For the foodies and alcohol-lovers:
1. Everything with cheese, yay!
There is a limited selection of meat in Bhutan – killing of animals is forbidden – and so all meat is imported into the country. That said, with much of the residents being vegetarian, their vegetable dishes are tastily cooked, often with cheeses.
A traditional meal in Bhutan will see quite little meat. Meat, if any, is served in its dried form. Chili cheese (top-right of picture) can be found in every meal, and goes well with their local red millet rice (centre of picture).
Their most famous dish is known as ema datshi, or chili cheese. The image that comes to your mind is probably that of cheese fries topped with some mean chili, but it is anything but that. Ema datshi is made of chili peppers fried in cheese broth, to become a stew of sorts that’s poured over rice to make a meal. I’m not a fan of spicy food, so this was not a dish I could tolerate much. However, it’s definitely something worth a try!
2. For a good afternoon snack, tuck into their roasted rice with masala or butter tea
If you’re tired from travelling around, ask for a cup of masala or butter (suja) tea – and it will sometimes come with a plate of ‘rice’. Don’t be taken aback, as this special kind of rice is roasted, and tastes really great when poured into your tea.
You can find masala or butter tea (suja) in many places. Drink it with some crispy roasted rice!
For a souvenir, why not buy back some roasted rice for your friends to try? They can often be found in markets around Bhutan.
3. Must-try alcohol for your post-dinner chill-out session: K5 Whisky and peach wine
You might be surprised to know that the Bhutanese do drink alcohol, and that they do produce their own alcohol. My favourite is definitely the K5 Whisky, partly distilled in Scotland and partly in Bhutan. It’s interestingly named after their fifth and current King, hence the name K5.
The K5 whisky that can be commonly found around Bhutan.
If you’re not a fan of whiskys, you can also try the peach wine, that is sweet and delicious.
Tuesdays are dry-days, and alcohol is not available for sale. Do purchase your alcohol on other days, if you’re thinking of buying some back home.
For the adventure junkies:
You can also do white-water rafting here, so bring spare clothes!
You might be surprised to know that you can try out white-water rafting here! Punakha city has two key rivers, the Pho Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female) rivers. When visiting the city of Punakha, we did white-water rafting down the “female” river, which is the tamer of the two rivers. If you’re up for more exciting action, try out the “male” river instead.
You will be able to see some interesting sights while white-water rafting down the Mo Chhu river in Punakha, including interesting bird species and Bhutan houses perched on the mountains.
Prepare some extra cash if you’re up for this. A one-hour ride will cost you about S$250 per raft but can be divided between the number of participants.
For those keen to learn about the Bhutanese culture and religion:
Temple and shrine-visiting is a daily affair, so wear easy-to-remove shoes
If you’re someone who’s keen to learn about Buddhism, Bhutan’s definitely the right place to go, but do remember to wear shoes that are easy to remove. All temples require you to remove your footwear before entering. Do also keep some spare cash with you, if you wish to make an offering at these temples. There are also butter lamps available for you to light and make a wish on.
The Kyichu Lhakhang, the oldest temple of Bhutan – originally built in the 7th century. You can easily visit it after climbing Tiger’s Nest.
You can pray for your heart’s desire by spinning prayer wheels, in a clockwise motion.
Bonus: Bhutan is a happy place for dog-lovers
You can find dogs just about everywhere in Bhutan, and they’re all rather well taken care of. If you’re a fan of dogs, keep some spare biscuits handy. These dogs are happy to follow you around – as long as you drop them a snack or two!
Dogs are everywhere in Bhutan, whether in the cities or along nature trails.
Just before your trip, you might wish to also take note of the following:
·Bring anti-nausea medicine. Mountain roads are windy, and you will need these tablets to ease motion sickness when you’re on the road.
·There are no plastic bags in Bhutan. The country is big on being environmentally friendly, so do bring your own plastic bags if you wish to store items – or if you want some handy in case you get motion sickness.
·Be weather-ready. Google weather isn’t quite accurate, and the weather is quite unpredictable in this country.
·Get a special travel adaptor. These adaptors are not commonly found in Singapore. Do approach your local guides for help to purchase one.
·Pack trekking shoes for the mountain climbs. Your normal sneakers will not cut it.
Some other fun facts – polygamy is legal in this country, and my tour guide shared that both men and women can have multiple spouses! It’s of course more common to see men having multiple wives than the other way around, but perhaps the limiting factor is whether you can afford it financially. The most well-known person in the country to have multiple wives is the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who married four sisters.
You may also hear the term “la” often in Bhutan, like in Singapore, but it’s used as a term of respect. So, don’t be taken aback when your guide ends his sentences with the word “la”!
Bhutan is a truly beautiful country, and one of the rare countries where I always felt welcomed wherever I went. The people were friendly and curious, and always happy to engage in a conversation. I had a marvelous time in the week that I was there, and would recommend this happy place to anyone.
About the writer
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, Lee Khai Yan.
About Khai Yan: A Singaporean with a love for travelling, Khai Yan has gone on many unforgettable adventures in unique destinations round-the-globe. Among them, she’s a huge fan of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat) and Russia’s Lake Baikal – both of which are massive wonders of nature. While travelling, she loves sampling local food; in particular, she’s making it her own personal mission to sample all variants of dumplings around the world.
Best time to visit
If you’re a fan of the Rhododendron flowers, a good time to visit is between the months of April and May. Do try to avoid the rainy months of July and August.
All trips must be booked and arranged through Bhutan tour operators. My visit was with MAD Bhutan, a Singaporean social enterprise, where profits go into helping less privileged children in Bhutan.
Bhutanese Ngultrum (Nu), and it’s used interchangeably in Bhutan with the Indian Rupee. If you have spare Indian Rupees, you may bring them along for use. You may exchange the Singapore dollar freely in Bhutan; best rates are found in the city.
Fly to Paro, Bhutan with Drukair, book your tickets now!