The excitement builds when you see Mt Everest, 30 minutes flying time from Bhutan. Then you wonder what will be on your list of the best places in Bhutan?
Your Druk Air flight starts to descend. It’s an exciting approach as you seemingly fly between steep mountain valleys. And then you touch down in Paro, the gateway to travel in Bhutan. As Druk Air is the only airline flying into Bhutan, it occurs to me that only a few pilots in the world ever fly into this valley!
After clearing customs, our Bhutan Tour Operator greets us, in traditional Bhutanese dress. And we receive a traditional white welcome scarf.
So, welcome to the Kingdom of Bhutan, land of the thunder dragon!
You are in for a real treat. Gorgeous scenery, magnificent trekking and walking opportunities, lovely people, stunning architecture with history just written all over it. And if you travel between February and July you can experience the many festivals in Bhutan.
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There you can witness the mask dance of Bhutan, which is just a wonderful experience that will leave you spellbound. So, by the end of your trip, the culture of Bhutan will totally immerse you. Consequently, you won’t want to leave and will have a tear in your eye.
Today, we cover the best places in Bhutan you should be aiming to see. And, we share our favorite hotel, hikes, food and drink. Tourism in Bhutan operates differently to anywhere else. So, we will also cover the logistics of how to get to Bhutan and what you can expect when you are there.
The Best Places in Bhutan
Dzongs and Festivals to Experience the Culture of Bhutan
Wow, where do you start nominating the best places in Bhutan? There are so many to choose from! So, we will stick to the highlights.
Your itinerary will almost certainly include visiting some dzongs. The Bhutanese constructed these dzongs about 400 years ago. Our 4 favorites were the Punakha Dzong, Trongsa Dzong, Bumthang Dzong and the Paro Dzong. You can read more about those stunning Dzongs here. For me, these are the best places in Bhutan to visit, especially during festival season.
And festival season in Bhutan runs between February and early July. If you travel then, you can attend any of the festivals in Bhutan. We attended the Punakha Festival at the Punakha Dzong and it was just stunning.
The color, the music, the dances and the people were just fascinating. And the Punakha Dzong is an inspiring venue adding to the excitement. If you are like me, this will be the absolute highlight of your vacation in Bhutan and something you will never forget.
Religion and mysticism are rooted into the culture of Bhutan. You will also visit a collection of temples, monasteries and stupas where monks and nuns pray, meditate and perform ceremonies, often with unique, Bhutanese, musical instruments.
At many of the temples and dzongs, you receive a blessing with saffron water from a monk. But be aware the Kingdom of Bhutan is very protective of the culture of Bhutan. Consequently, you must dress modestly and not take pictures nor video inside temples. If you need to remove your shoes this usually means no pictures allowed.
Other Great Places to See in Bhutan
Some of the other choices for places to see in Bhutan are:
- The Ogyen Choling Palace Museum in the Tang Valley, near Bumthang, is the only private museum in Bhutan. You will hear about the family which owns the palace and has done so for 21 generations and 700 years! Possibly the best, small museum I have attended anywhere. And, the guided tour and the explanation of what you are viewing is excellent.
- The National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu teaches students in 13 traditional arts. Visiting the Institute is eye opening.
- Also, in Thimphu, is the excellent Bhutan Textile Museum.
- Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. Watching a game, or even practice, is a great experience.
- Enjoy a hot stone bath out in the open viewing the magnificent mountains of Bhutan.
In addition, trekking in Bhutan, day hikes or just gentle walks through some of the valleys and farmlands are all very pleasant.
Trekking in Bhutan
Trekking in Bhutan is becoming big business, but unlike neighboring Nepal, the Kingdom of Bhutan, strictly controls numbers. And unlike Nepal, you cannot independently backpack around the country.
The best time to trek (multi-day hiking) in the higher altitudes of Bhutan is:
- late September to mid-November for clear days and crisp nights; and
- late March through mid-May, when the rhododendrons are in full bloom.
There are numerous trekking options both in terms of location and duration. It was not quite trekking season during our visit. The scenery in Bhutan is stunning. So, we will return another time to get our fix on trekking in Bhutan.
If you are not into multi-day trekking, there are plenty of opportunities for shorter hikes.
Day Hikes to view the Best Places in Bhutan
Is the Phobjikha Valley the fabled Shangri La? You can judge for yourself. The “nature hike” is a gentle amble through the valley with a duration of about an hour. And, if you travel between November and March, you will no doubt see the endangered, black-necked cranes. These magnificent birds nest there during the winter season.
Another highlight is to day-hike to the magnificent Tiger’s Nest Monastery, surely the icon of tourism in Bhutan. Even, the heaviest snow fall for 10 years (in spring mind you) did not deter us from the Tiger’s Nest!
Tiger’s Nest Hike is another of the Best Places in Bhutan
Surely this is one of the best places in Bhutan. And, I expect it is on many people’s bucket list to glimpse the magnificent Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
The Tiger’s Nest hike is exhilarating. Allowing for stops along the way, it takes about 2 hours to hike to the monastery. The last part of the hike includes about 700 stone steps to reach the Tiger’s Nest Monastery itself. And for us, the snow made it even more magnificent. It is not that common to experience snow when hiking to Tiger’s Nest. This was a freak event so don’t be put off by it!
Upon reaching the monastery, your guide will give you a tour. When you look out at the valley below and the steep gorges and cliffs in the area you realize how impressive this structure is. Tiger’s Nest appears to be hugging the cliff. Yet another highlight of Bhutan.
Returning downhill also takes about 2 hours. For us, it was slightly longer because of the (now) melting snow. We also stopped halfway down for a cup of tea, a most pleasant Bhutanese habit, at a kiosk, which was most welcome. If you don’t want to complete the Tiger’s Nest Hike, you can make the café your turnaround point. It does have a great view of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
Upon completing the Tiger’s Nest hike, you will arrive back at the trailhead feeling extremely satisfied with yourself. After all, it is one of the world’s most iconic structures set high up in the mountains.
Feeling chuffed, we returned to the Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, only 5 minutes or so from the trailhead.
Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro is one of the Best Hotels in Bhutan
The Zhiwa Ling Hotel is surely one of the best hotels in Bhutan and was without doubt our favorite of the trip.
The Zhiwa Ling Hotel is the only locally owned, 5-star hotel in Bhutan. For sure, there are other 5-star hotels in Bhutan but overseas corporations own those.
The stone and wooden architecture is outstanding. But don’t just take my word for it, National Geographic Magazine agrees.
There is typical Bhutanese, hand-carved and painted wood throughout the inside and outside of the Zhiwa Ling Hotel. Consequently, it is a spectacular example of modern, Bhutanese architecture.
60 artisans worked for 5 years on the carvings alone! With beautiful bedding, large rooms and fabulous 5-star food it is a great option for the start or end of your travel in Bhutan.
What You Need to Know about Tourism in Bhutan
How to Get to Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan uses a different tourism model to other countries. The population of Bhutan is only 700,000. To protect the culture of Bhutan, they have made a conscious decision to heavily restrict the numbers of tourists entering the country.
In Bhutan, you must use a Bhutan tour operator and a guide and driver will accompany you throughout your trip. You cannot independently travel in Bhutan, including backpacking or trekking in Bhutan.
All tourists, except those from Nepal and India, require a visa to enter the country. Your Bhutan Tour Operator will coordinate this for you. Visas are electronic and it is a simple process.
Due to the mountainous nature of the country, there is only 1 international airport in Paro, the gateway to Bhutan. There are other, smaller, domestic airports around the country which can handle smaller aircraft.
To fly to Bhutan, you must fly with Druk Airways. Bangkok has the most frequent service but there are other options including India and Nepal. No other airline services Paro. We were very happy with the quality of the jet aircraft and service. You will be well fed! Western airlines take note!
Travel in Bhutan
Travel within the country is either by air using Druk Airways or by road. The quality of the vehicles was very good and we were very comfortable.
There is 1 major highway which crosses the entire country. Large parts of that highway are currently under construction. And, quite amazing to see really. Given the mountainous terrain of Bhutan the roads wind up the valleys, over passes and down the other side. We didn’t travel longer than 4 hours at a time in the car. Upon completion of the highway construction in 2020, driving times will be shorter.
There is a good range of 3 to 5-star hotels in Bhutan, ranging from the rather basic to the luxurious. All the hotels we stayed at were clean and provided Wi-Fi, some in the room and others around the public areas. The mobile phone network worked in most places we visited.
The power is not always reliable but most outages were quite short. There are major hydro-electric projects currently underway so this should continue to improve.
Bhutan tour costs are not cheap. The cost will depend on the standard of accommodation and the season of travel. But the flip side is all good.
Why Travel in Bhutan is a Low Stress Activity
The Kingdom of Bhutan is not overrun with tourists. So, when you visit the best places in Bhutan, you won’t experience tourists fighting each other to take photographs. Your guide and driver accompany you for the duration of your trip. So, they will become your friends and look out for you.
They care about you and they care about their country. English is no problem at all in Bhutan, it is taught at school. Most tour operators also cater well for other major languages.
Tour groups are small. We toured with Yangphel Travel as a group of 2. Groups range between 2 and 16. Most groups we observed were either 2 or 4, although this would depend when you are traveling. Small groups mean you hear more of what the guide has to say and you therefore will leave with a deeper understanding of the culture of Bhutan. Note there are different arrangements when trekking in Bhutan.
Bhutanese cuisine is primarily organic, vegetarian and it is excellent. We also ate pork, chicken, beef and fish. Meals in hotels are generally buffet style. You can read more about Bhutanese cuisine here. And there is no shortage of alcoholic beverages in Bhutan. And, no more expensive than anywhere else.
Bhutan Tour Operators
We traveled with Yangphel Adventure Travel and could not have been happier. Our guide, Norzang, was personable, knowledgeable and became our friend over our 2-week trip.
He went out of his way to understand our interests and tailored the trip accordingly. So, some extra hiking in our case. We visited the best places in Bhutan according to our tastes.
Our driver, Pemba, was safe, reliable and a most excellent archery player! Watching him practice one day was one of the highlights of our trip. On returning from our hikes, Pemba would always have afternoon tea set and ready to go.
In summary, Norz and Pemba looked after us well. Between them and the staff at all the hotels, we never had to carry a bag and nothing was ever too much trouble.
And extra costs? The only extra costs were for souvenirs and alcohol. Tours include water, tea, snacks, all meals and accommodation, visas and airfares to and from Bangkok.
Tashi Delek. (Bhutanese for good luck or cheers. There are no words for goodbye)
We traveled as guests of Yangphel Adventure Travel. As always, all opinions are our own.