The Whistletrip: Itinerary
- Days 1 & 2: Thimphu
- Days 3 & 4: Punakha
- Days 5, 6 & 7: Paro and Tiger’s Nest Monastery
My most vivid childhood TV memory is staring wide-eyed as Michael Palin, the Monty Python troupe member, documented an adventure the Himalayas. I never forgot the majesty of the landscape, a manifestation of widespread Buddhism in tranquil regional culture, or the vibrant colors of local festivals.
Palin’s accompanying book moved with me to college dorm rooms, first flats in London, and across the US to New York. And the dream of seeing the Himalayas stayed with me too. Eventually taking me to Bhutan.
- Hiking: I hiked every single day on this whistletrip. While there are gentle walks through the villages, there is no avoiding steep trails – made tougher by the altitude – to see Bhutan’s main monasteries, including the iconic Tiger’s Nest. The views and deep lung fulls of fresh mountain air are incredible daily treats if your knees can withstand it, but you will need to be selective about which treks to prioritize if you find hilly walks tough.
- Solo Travel: Bhutan is one of the safest countries in the world and the mandatory use of a guide (see below) makes this a great solo whistletrip destination.
To Travel Agent or Not to Travel Agent
There is no choice – you need a travel agent. Bhutan’s government requires all foreign tourists except Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders to book vacations through a Bhutanese tour operator or one of their international partners. The tour operator takes care of visa arrangements.
The government fixes minimum daily US$ package rates of $200 to $250 per person that cover at least 3* accommodation, all meals, a licensed Bhutanese guide for the entire duration of the trip, internal road transfers and trekking equipment.
Treating this as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I decided to stay at the highest end hotels in the country – the super-luxury 5* Aman resorts. In partnership with the Bhutan royal family, Aman owns and runs 5 properties spread across the country.
Booking directly with Aman is the cheapest way to stay at their resorts. The “Amankora” experience provides accommodation for 7 to 12 nights in a minimum of three different properties, a driver and guide for the duration of the journey, all meals, unlimited laundry and a spa treatment at the resort of choice.
Rooms at the best hotels and flights from the most convenient hubs are limited, so discounted deals are not going to happen. As soon as you decide to go to Bhutan, get booking!
- Mobilize: DrukAir and Bhutan Airlines are the only carriers flying into the country. The major international hubs they service include only Bangkok, Singapore, and Delhi and owing to flight schedules, you will certainly need to overnight in one of these before flying to Bhutan. I flew on DrukAir through Bangkok to avoid the hassle of getting a separate visa to stay in Delhi; flights from Singapore are much less frequent. Sit on the left side of the plane (seat A side) for the best views over the Himalayas as you head into the country – an Aman representative got to Bangkok airport before I did to check me in early for those prized seats!
- Pack: If you do decide to take the Amankora and make use of unlimited laundry service, you can pack very little – just two days’ worth of activity clothing and two nights’ of smart casual evening outfits. I went to Bhutan in the winter and wore thermal underwear with leggings (Uniqlo has fantastic value options), a ski jacket, and scarf with gloves every day. Be sure to take good walking shoes, ideally waterproof and with ankle support. I bought Merrell hiking boots especially for this trip. Chapstick, sunscreen and moisturizer are all necessary, even in the winter.
Days 1 & 2: Thimphu
Nidup, my guide for the week, met me with his driver at Paro airport. With terminal buildings in traditional Bhutanese style, complete with colorful frescoes, the sense of having escaped to a different world immediately set in. Our car – my vehicle for the whole visit – was furnished with comfortable cushions and blankets. A handwoven amenities bag filled with smelling salts for motion sickness, sunscreen, lip balm, moisturizer and hand sanitizer waited on the backseat, together with glass jars filled with chocolate covered popcorn and sugary shortbread to fuel the 90 minute drive to Thimphu.
Thimphu’s peaceful 16-suite Aman resort is modeled after a monastery and is nestled among pine trees, the glorious smell of which permeates the grounds on dewy mornings. Cedar-built bedrooms have a minimalist design and an open flow from the bed to the bath area. A traditional bukhari wood-burning stove in the center of the room is lit upon request and each day, fresh baked cookies were ready in the room when I returned from hiking. High quality local crafts appeared on the bed after turn down service, making perfect souvenirs.
To stretch my legs that first travel day, we walked around the enormous Buddha Dordenma statue that looms above the city. Sculptures of bodhisattvas surround it, enhancing the drama of the mountainous scenery. Almost 170 feet tall, the statue contains 125,000 small gilded bronze Buddhas.
Completed in 2015 after 9 years of development, the Dordenma statue was the first sign of a common Bhutanese phenomenon: a relatively new construction that exudes antiquity. To accommodate Thimphu’s 100,000-strong population increasing demands for apartment living, new buildings are rising but designed in almost complete conformity with existing architectural features. Wearing traditional dress is mandatory for guides, for Bhutanese visitors to national monuments, and universally during festivals. Though cell phones are everywhere and western attire is commonplace, the atmosphere is so overwhelmingly ancient that the modern is effectively camouflaged.
Hike to Cheri Goemba: The second day brought the highlight of the stay in Thimphu – an adventure out of the city to the Tango-Cheri Monastery and meditation center. The trail starts with a charming cantilever bridge over the Thimphu Chu river and continues winding uphill through a quiet forest. A small chorten, a stupa, appears about half way up – the first time I learned that you must walk clockwise around these. The 17th century campus is divided into two goembas (monasteries) – Tango Goemba, a premier university for Buddhist learning and monks’ training, which includes over 3 years of silent meditation, and Cheri Goemba, which is the monks’ residential complex. Small meditation huts are built into the hillside, the only signs of hermit life being shoes at the doorsteps, barely visible cookware, and delicate furls of smoke rising from chimneys.
On the final morning at Thimphu, I found a monk waiting at the car to offer blessings for a safe onward trip to Punakha. An ostrich feather and holy water were tapped on my head, and a green silk cord placed around my neck as a talisman.
- Shop: The Jungshi Paper Factory for handmade scrap books, cards and note books. You can see the whole paper making process from soaking bark to crafting textured pages. Kelzang Weaving Center has silk looms in action and beautifully displayed fabrics.
- Make Time For: Watching a tournament at the Changlimithang Archery Ground. Teams of archers in traditional dress shoot at targets about 475 feet away, and sing and dance for each other when there are successful hits.
- Relax: The Aman Thimphu’s signature hot oil head massage is incredible. As the weight of the oil seeps away from your forehead, every care seems to go with it.
- Skip: The sterile and uninspiring Thimphu market.
Days 3 & 4: Punakha
The 3 hour drive from Thimphu to Punakha has a bevy of twists and turns – motion sickness sufferers come prepared. Respite comes mid-transit in the Dochula Pass, where we stopped to view 108 memorial chorten built adjacent to Bhutan’s Royal Botanical Park at just over a 10,000 feet elevation. A tea house on the edge of the chorten offers a pleasant rest and beverages.
Punakha Dzong is one of the most important in Bhutan, its imposing whitewashed walls protecting the coronation site of all of the country’s kings.
The Bazam cantilever bridge leading up to the dzong’s entrance bustles with visitors and once inside, the building is filled with detailed gems, from gilded doors to striking depictions of dharma wheels.
Arriving at the Aman Punakha excitingly requires walking a rope suspension bridge across the river. The Indiana Jones vibe stops there however. The 8-suite property is intimate, the tranquil atmosphere accentuated by an on-site meditation or prayer room and a small, light filled yoga studio. A restored farmhouse, the property looks different from the Aman Thimphu from the outside but the suites have a very similar design – those in the Aman Paro are identical. The familiarity of the living space means that despite being on the road every two to three days, the Amankora journey has an uninterrupted flow that makes the trip feel stress free.
Hike to Khamsum Chorten: Two to three hours from the Aman, through rice paddies and farmyards, is the pristine Khamsum Chorten, built by the Queen Mother in the 1990s. The intricately painted temple is beautifully located to look across the Punakha Valley and the grounds are flawlessly manicured.
Hike to Giligang: The strenuous one to two hour walk to the hilltop Giligang temple is well worth the effort upon meeting the octogenarian couple who have lived beside it, tending to the building, for 50 years. They survive on visitors’ contributions and proceeds from selling vegetables they grow in their small grounds. Though a much humbler temple than the Khamsum Chorten, its authenticity and the charm of its caretakers make the 300 year old Giligang temple a “must see”. The trees on the downward trail towards Changyul Bridge, just before Punakha Dzong, are spectacular.
- Don’t Miss: Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge, near Punakha Dzong. Crossing feels like its own adventure. Novice monks are swim and wash their robes in the Pho Chhu river below while their friends hurl banter and the occasional stone at them from the bridge’s rungs.
- Make Time For: The small monastery of Drupka Kunley, to learn the story of the saint otherwise known as the “Divine Madman”. His unorthodox method of teaching Buddhism through frankly hedonistic behavior inspired the proliferation of phallic iconography throughout Bhutan. Madman or genius?
- Skip: Gross National Happiness Lecture offered at most higher end hotels. Seeking to impress listeners with how Bhutan has dubbed itself the world’s happiest nation, the construct feels like a jazzed up packaging of standard development metrics focusing on sustainability and quality of life in addition to measurements of income levels. Overpriced and underwhelming session – instead read relevant articles from The Economist.
Days 5, 6 & 7: Paro and Tiger’s Nest
Tucked inside a forest, the 24-suite Aman Paro is complete with hot stone baths, outdoor fire pits for al fresco dining, and a host of complimentary activities including astrology readings (skip it – incomprehensible simultaneous translation) and on-site archery (try it – staff bring you rice wine while you focus).
Home to the elegant Paro Dzong, the National Museum of Bhutan, and an attractive main street lined with souvenir stores, Paro really serves as the gateway to two of the country’s most famous hikes.
Hike to Paro Taktsang: Better known as Tiger‘s Nest, the crown jewel of Bhutan deserves the earliest rise you can muster to avoid other visitors as you wind your way up the steep trail for two hours to see this spectacular monastery, literally built into the mountainside 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley. Setting out at 8am in the morning mist, visibility threatened to be limited. Nevertheless, we could see, sparkling with dew, Spanish moss, its existence the sign of the freshest air, hanging snake-like from tree branches.
Prayer flags crisscrossed alongside and sometimes above the trail, and small piles of stones, rudimentary offerings, appeared on rocks along the way. As the sun rose and burnt off the mist, we found ourselves above the cloud line with clear views across to the dzong.
From the first real viewing point is a steep descent by stairs into a colorful sea of flags at the base of a 200 feet tall waterfall close to the monastery.
Then the final steep clamber up to Tiger’s Nest itself. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche, an 8th century Buddhist master, flew to the site on the back of tigress and unveiled his wrathful form to subdue a local demon, then meditating here. Now the holiest site in Bhutan, no cameras or cell phones are permitted there. Four buildings are connected by steps carved into the rock and the rickety structures have balconies with beautiful clear views up to the monastery.
Chelela Ridge Walk: One of the highest trails to hike in Bhutan is Gungkarpo and even at its start in Chelela Pass, we could feel the altitude pressing gently on our lungs and our noses. Tall, slim, white flags, usually planted in the ground to remember the dead, lined the ridge of the mountain, and we followed these through the haze for 90 minutes to a small meditation hut surrounded by colorful prayer flags.
From here we could look across the Paro and Haa Valleys, which are particularly lush with rhododendron in the spring. After snacking, we hiked down towards the isolated Khela nunnery, the trail proving quite perilous at points. In one patch, it literally consisted of a frozen stream, forcing us to pick our way through the ice to get down the hillside – not an easy task even in good hiking boots, but magical as the ice twinkled in the sun.
The nunnery was actually almost empty, the nuns having gone home to see their families for two weeks. Nevertheless, the lone young woman left behind to oversee the complex was happy to show us the lovely temple in which girls come to study here from as young as eight, taught by Buddhist monk masters.
- Eat: Home-cooked lunch in a local farmhouse in nearby Kichu village was one of the best meals of the trip. Butter tea, flavorful curries, momo (delicious Bhutanese dumplings), all washed down with ara (local wine) and while sitting on the floor in front of the home’s wood-burning stove. Midway on the trail to Tiger’s Nest is a tea house with spectacular views on a clear day up to the monastery – a delightful spot for breakfast if you decide to fuel up mid-hike up or for a snack on the way down.
- Don’t miss: Making prayer flags. It was wonderful to take home such an integral part of the Bhutanese aethestic – with their grand symbols and intricate calligraphy – and fun to come away fingers covered in sticky natural black dye .
- Make Time For: Walk through the villages to see picturesque farms dotted across the rice paddies.
This was my final hike in Bhutan, in the morning before my flight to Bangkok. A peaceful and humbling cap to an unbelievable journey.
- Postscript: DrukAir and Aman performed a small traveler’s miracle for The Whistletripper. After I left my cherished camera on the flight out of Bhutan, the two collaborated seamlessly to retrieve it and deliver it to my hotel in central Bangkok. Thus continuing the exceptional customer service experienced in the country even after I had left.
© Ann Berry