51 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Luang Prabang, Laos Right Now

 

51 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Luang, Prabang, Laos, Immediately

In early February, I spent just a little over 48 hours in the adorable town of Luang Prabang, Laos. Luang Prabang was the last stop on my two-week Asia adventure, which included Bhutan and Bangkok. Before visiting, I read quite a few blogs with varied opinions on Luang Prabang, ranging from “omg, it’s the cutest town ever” to “it’s tourist hell.”

I’m happy to report that I loved my time in Luang Prabang and wish I had a couple more days to spend here. Yes, it’s a small town and you can see most of the attractions in a couple of days. However, the entire town has a chill, laid-back vibe and you’ll definitely want to slow down here. From watching monks cross the bamboo bridge to the luxurious spas, there’s plenty here to occupy your time.

I’ll be writing an itinerary¬†guide shortly, but in the meantime, here are some photos that will make you want to book at trip to Luang Prabang ASAP.

The 51 number of photos that will make you want to visit

 

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51 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Luang, Prabang, Laos, Immediately

51 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Luang, Prabang, Laos, Immediately

How to Pack for Bhutan

I visited Bhutan at the end of January for 5 days, which presented some packing challenges. First challenge: It’s winter in Bhutan, which means chilly weather. I also went to Bangkok and Luang Prabang after Bhutan, which meant I needed to have warm-weather clothing as well. Second challenge: I wanted to pack in a carry-on backpack and I had a load of photography gear to bring with me. Third challenge: Packing lists for Bhutan are pretty long (at least the ones I found online) and if I brought along every single item on the lists, there’s no way I’d be able to close my carry-on luggage.

With that said, here’s what I found absolutely essential to bring. If you’re visiting in the summer, you obviously won’t need as many warm-weather clothes but the other items are still the same.

The Luggage


On this trip, I brought my favorite carry-on backpack, the Maxpedition Fliegerduffel. My husband turned me on to this brand since it’s a military-grade bag (a lot of ex-military people use this brand) and virtually indestructible. The duffel has two backpack straps that tuck away when you no longer need them.

To carry all my personal items, including my camera/photography gear, I also brought my Pacsafe daypack. I actually used my Vanguard Havana backpack as my daypack once I landed but in terms of hauling all of my gear onto the plane, the Pacsafe worked wonders.

Maxpedition Fliegerduffel Backpack
Maxpedition Fliegerduffel Backpack

Clothing


Punakha Dzong
Me in front of the Punakha Dzong, wearing my Lole jacket

Warm jacket: It gets cold in Bhutan in the middle of January, particularly at night and at a higher elevations. It’s not uncommon to see snowfall in December, January and February. I needed a lightweight jacket that could pack flat in my suitcase once I got to Bangkok. The Lole Emeline jacket kept me warm when it got down into the 30s/40s at night and it took up almost no space in my backpack. If you’re going to be trekking in the mountains in the winter, you’ll definitely need something warmer.


Rain shell:¬†Unless your warm-weather jacket also happens to be waterproof, I also recommend bringing a rain shell, particularly one that folds into a tiny pouch. I brought my Columbia Arcadia II jacket, which I also use at home in the PNW. I didn’t need to use it at all in Bhutan since I only encountered light rain/snow on one day. You could also bring an umbrella but I prefer to have my hands free for my camera.


Pants: I brought two pairs of pants that I rotated through, along with a lightweight pair of leggings to wear underneath my pants, just in case. I ended up not wearing the leggings during the day but they were certainly nice to have when I was in the hotel room at night. Even if you’re traveling in the summer, you still need to bring pants because you won’t be admitted to the temples in shorts.

I packed the Lole Becky Pant (so comfortable that I have two pairs) and the Lole Gateway Pant.


Tops:¬†I packed a couple of lightweight long sleeve tees, one tank top to wear underneath my tees, one sweater and one long-sleeved athletic top that I wore on the hike up to Tiger’s Nest.

Again, if you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll need to bring long sleeves with you since you won’t be admitted in a tank top or short sleeve shirt.

I recommend packing layers because the weather can change dramatically in the span of a few minutes. When I was hiking in Punakha, I got warm enough that I needed to ditch the jacket and my long-sleeve top.

Socks and undergarments:¬†I know this seems obvious but you don’t want to forget your socks. Your feet will freeze in the winter and visiting temples will be very uncomfortable if you forget them (you have to remove your shoes to enter the temple). I also wore my socks in the hotel room at night since the rooms tend to be a bit chilly, even with the heat cranked all the way up.

In addition to a regular bra, you should also bring along a sports bra for the days that you’re hiking. You won’t want to be comfortable in a standard underwire bra on your up to Tiger’s Nest.

Shoes:¬†Most of the guides I read said that you need to bring along sturdy hiking boots, which is true if you’re trekking or you just need additional ankle support. While Tiger’s Nest is steep, it’s not a technical trail and I didn’t feel that hiking boots were a necessity. I got by just fine with my Nike metcons, which I also wore on the flight over.

Accessories¬†:¬†No matter what time of year you’re visiting, you will need your sunglasses so don’t forget them. While you can certainly buy a pair in Thimphu, why would you want to waste your valuable vacation time shopping for something like sunglasses?

If you’re visiting in the winter, bring a warm hat and gloves as well. If you’re visiting in the summer, bring a lightweight, breathable hat to cover your head.

Personal Items


Keys to Bhutan
Me with my Keys to Bhutan guide and driver

Sunscreen:¬†Depending on which town you’re visiting, the elevation ranges from 7,000 feet to 10,000 feet (and higher) so you’ll need to protect yourself with sunscreen. I brought two mini spray bottles of sunscreen and found that was enough for 5 days.

Books/Kindle: There’s not a lot to do late at night so keeping yourself occupied with a good book is a nice way to spend the evening. If you’re bringing your Kindle, make sure you download books before the trip since the wifi at the hotels is pretty spotty.

Essential documents: Make sure you bring a printout of your visa confirmation since you will need it to board your flight to Paro. Also bring along your passport, copies of travel insurance and credit cards.

Flashlight:¬†It gets very dark at night and some of the streets aren’t well-lit.

Earplugs:¬†Even if you’re a deep sleeper, I guarantee that you will still need earplugs. Those gangs of dogs are so damn loud and of course they sleep in the middle of the day.

Toiletries:¬†I was glad that I brought shampoo and body wash. The hotels will supply you with both but they may not be brands that you’re familiar with. Don’t forget your deodorant and toothbrush/toothpaste either.

Snacks:¬†You may get hungry while you’re hiking and it’s nice to have some food from home. I brought a few Larabars from home which I ate while hiking up Tiger’s Nest.

Medication:¬†Bring all your medication from home. I also bring along melatonin since it helps me adjust when I have jet lag. I didn’t have any prescription motion sickness medication with me and I wish I did since the roads in Bhutan are very windy and I almost got car sick a couple of times.

Daypack:¬†You’ll want a daypack to carry your daily essentials in. I brought along the Vanguard Havana 41 since I always carry extra lenses and it has space at the bottom to hold them. There’s a divider at the top to separate personal items from the compartment that holds the lenses. If you need a daypack that’s suitable for your photography gear, I highly recommend this one.

International adapter:¬†Electricity runs at 220-240 volts so there’s a good chance that you will need an adapter in order to charge your electronics. I’ve used this Kensington international adapter for years; it has multiple plug options and comes with 2 USB ports, which is handy when you’re in a hotel with only one outlet (common in Bhutan).

Your cell phone:¬†You likely won’t have service so consider buying a local Bhutanese SIM card if you need to be connected.

Cash:¬†Bhutan has ATMs but they can be a little unreliable. I didn’t spend a lot of money but did manage to buy a couple souvenirs, a few beers and I also brought along enough to give my driver and guide a good tip ($10-15 per day is average).

Photography Gear


The average person isn’t going to bring all this gear but I want to give you an idea of what I packed. My photo gear took up a lot of room in my luggage but I still managed to bring carry-on only luggage.

Camera: I have a Sony A6000, which I highly recommend. The newest version of this camera is the Sony A6500.

Tripod:¬†I shoot handheld the majority of the time but if you want to take tack-sharp landscape photos or shoot stars at night (which I highly recommend), you’ll need a tripod. Don’t cheap out and buy a flimsy tripod that is going to drop your camera on the ground. Invest in a high quality, lightweight tripod and ball head.

I personally love the Gitzo Traveler tripod, which is made out of carbon fiber and therefore lightweight, yet incredibly sturdy.

Lenses:¬†Lenses are a matter of personal preference; you should really understand your style of photography before you invest serious cash into them. If you aren’t sure if you want to buy a particular lens, I recommend renting them on¬†Borrow Lenses. For my Sony, I have the 18-200mm, 10-18mm for wide angle shots, 17-60mm and a 32mm prime.

Camera batteries and battery charger:¬†I always travel with a ridiculous number of spare batteries because the last thing I want to do is have my camera go dead while I’m in the middle of taking a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

Memory cards:¬†Just like with batteries, I’d rather have too many memory cards rather than too few.

Filters, like polarizing and neutral density filters:¬†I used these a few times. Polarizing filters reduce glare and make blue skies pop.¬†Neutral density filters are like sunglasses for your camera and reduce the amount of light coming it. It’s what allows photographers to blur movement in broad daylight, like waterfalls. If you’ve never used filters before, you should practice before you leave for your trip.

Lens wipes:¬†I’m picky about lens wipes since some of them leave streaks or little tiny fibers on the lens. My favorite are these Zeiss wipes.

*Note: The post above contains some Amazon affiliate links. The products mentioned are all products that I purchased with my own money and brought with me to Bhutan. I only recommend products that I’ve personally used and love.

How to pack for BhutanHow to Pack for Bhutan

11 Things You Need to Know Before You Visit Bhutan

Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Bhutan

The tiny kingdom of Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayan mountains, sharing a border with India, Nepal and Tibet, home to 800,000 people. The landlocked country is full of historic Buddhist monasteries, fortresses, beautiful mountain landscapes and some of the world’s happiest people.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Bhutan is definitely worth a visit, even though there’s a little preparation needed. Here’s what you need to know before you go:

You need a visa and a tour guide
As I wrote in a previous post, everyone (except citizens of India, Maldives and Bangladesh) must apply for a visit and use the services of a local tour operator. Your tour company will assist you with the visa process.

Keys to Bhutan
Me with my Keys to Bhutan guide and driver

You’ll pay a daily tariff to the tour company, which ranges in prices from $200 to $250 depending on when you’re visiting. Although the price may sound steep, the cost includes your accommodation, food, services of a tour guide and transportation.

Here’s what it will cost you to visit in 2017:

Groups of 3 people or more:
US $200 per person per night during the months of January, February, June, July, August, December
US $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, November

If you’re a solo traveler, you’ll need to add $40 per night. If you’re traveling as a couple, you’ll add $30 per person per night.

Additionally, there’s a $40 for the visa itself.

Once your visa is issues, look at it closely to make sure your name isn’t misspelled. There was a typo in my visa and a lot of drama ensued at the Delhi airport, which I would’ve preferred to avoid.

Monk robes at the Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Monk robes at the Punakha Dzong

The Best Time to Visit
Bhutan is a year-round destination so the best time to visit is really a personal preference.

You’ll see spectacular flowers if you visit in the spring (March to June) and you’ll have crisp, clear days if you visit in the autumn (September to November). The largest and most colorful festivals (tsechus) also take place around this time and attract a large share of tourists. This is definitely high season so you’ll want to make sure to book in advance so that you have your choice of accommodation as well as flights.

Fields in Punakha Bhutan
Fields in Punakha Bhutan

Summer (June through August) is a great time to visit since the daily tariff is lower and the valleys are lush. Even though it’s monsoon season, my guide said it usually rains once in the afternoon and it isn’t too heavy.

I try to travel during the off-season whenever I can so I visited in the winter (late January). There were very few tourists and the plane was half-empty on arrival.

The temperatures are pretty cold and it’s not uncommon to see snow. If you plan on visiting rural areas, you may want to fly on Druk Air since the roads may be impassible due to snow fall.

This chart will give you an idea of which months are busiest:

Bhutan Tourist Arrivals by Month

Getting There & Away
There are only three land border areas open to tourists: Phuentsholing, which is 6 hours away from Thimphu, Gelephu, which is 10 hours away from Thimphu and Samdrup Jonghkhar, which is 3 days away from Thimphu.

Most tourists will arrive by air to Paro, Bhutan on one of two airlines: Drukair and Bhutan Airlines. There are currently flights from the following locations: Delhi, Bangkok, Kolkata, Bagdogra, Bodh Gaya, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Guwahati, Singapore and Mumbai.

Bhutan: Paro Airport
Paro international airport

If you’re flying from Nepal or India, make sure to request a window seat on the left seat of the plane on arrival for spectacular views of the Himalayas. If the weather is clear, you’ll see Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga.

If you can, I recommend buying a business class ticket on Druk Air. You’ll enjoy a much more comfortable seat (complete with footrest) and amazing service.

The Food is Spicy
Good news for spicy food lovers: Almost all the local food in Bhutan is served with red and green chilis. If you like fire-in-your-mouth levels of spiciness, you’ve come to the right place.

My guide, Dhoji, told me that a lot of tourists don’t like Bhutanese cuisine because it’s too hot. I think he was surprised when I ate a meal with him and enjoyed every dish on my plate.

The country’s national dish, ema datse, consists of fiery chillies and farmer’s cheese, served with local red rice. To make it even more spicy, it often has dried chillies on top.

Ema Datshi, chili dish in Bhutan
Ema Datshi in Bhutan

If you’re not a fan of spicy food, don’t worry. All the hotels serve dinner and they tone the spicy level way down for westerners. You’ll find a lot of Indian dishes, western dishes as well as some Bhutanese dishes with fewer chilis.

Momos in Bhutan
Momos in Bhutan

One note about meat in Bhutan: no animals are slaughtered in Bhutan but meat is consumed in the country. It’s brought to Bhutan from India via refrigerated trucks.

Bring Cash
While there are ATMs in Paro and Thimphu, they aren’t always reliable so make sure you bring USD or Indian rupees with you in case you can’t withdraw your funds. The ngultrum is the currency and it’s tied closely to the Indian rupee.

Monks crossing the bridge in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Monks crossing the bridge in Punakha Dzong

Photography
Bhutan is a stunning place to photograph and while smartphones take wonderful pictures, I recommend bringing along a real camera.

Prayer wheel Bhutan
Prayer wheel

Keep in mind that photography is not allowed inside most monasteries and temples. If ¬†you have to take your shoes off, you probably aren’t allowed to take a photo.

Bhutan: At the entrance to Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest Monastery
At the entrance to Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Keep Your Eye Out For the Royal Family
Since Bhutan is such a small country, you may encounter the royal family.¬†One morning in Punakha, the driver pulled the left side of the road and waited for some oncoming vehicles to pass. He told me that the entire royal family just drove by and they had likely visited the Punakha Dzong. If you do happen to spot the royals, don’t take their photo unless you have explicit permission.

Along those lines, don’t disrespect the royals.¬†The Bhutanese people hold the monarchy close to their hearts and you’ll see photos of the royal family in museums, restaurants and shops.

Bhutan: Prayer flags on the hike up to Tiger's Nest Monastery
Prayer flags on the hike up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Get a local SIM
Your cell phone may not get service in Bhutan (mine certainly didn’t). If you need to stay connected, plan on buying a Bhutanese SIM card.

Wifi¬†is available in all the hotels but is probably much slower than what you’re used to back home. I was able to check Facebook but downloading email and trying to use FaceTime was pretty much impossible.

Bhutan: Paro Dzong
Bhutan: Paro Dzong

Bring appropriate clothing
I visiting in the middle of winter and the temperatures ranged anywhere from 30 F to 65 F in the course of a single day. If you’re visiting in the winter, plan on bringing a warm jacket, gloves, hat and warm pants. When you’re hiking, particularly at Tiger’s Nest, you’re going to want to shed your jacket so make sure you have a warm shirt underneath.

You’ll also need to dress modestly and respectfully at temples which means long pants and covered shoulders. You’ll need to remove your shoes when entering the temples so I definitely recommend wearing socks so that you don’t have to walk around barefoot.

Punakha Dzong
Me in front of the Punakha Dzong

While all the hotels have heat, it wasn’t as strong as I was used to so¬†plan on bringing along a warm pair of pajamas in the winter.

Bring sunscreen
Bhutan is at a high altitude so you’ll need to bring sunglasses and wear sunscreen, regardless of the time of year.

Learn some dzongkha
Bhutan’s official language is dzongkha, with an additional 19 languages being spoken throughout the country. You’ll primarily hear dzongkha in Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Haa, Wangdue and Phodrang. Even though the words are incredibly challenging to speak, you’ll earn respect from the Bhutanese for attempting the language.

Here are some basic phrases:
Hello: Kuzu zangpo la
Nice to meet you: Nga shoe da chebay sem ga yi
My name is: Nga gi ming _____ in
Thank you: Kadrin chhe la

Stupas at Dochula Pass Bhutan
Stupas at Dochula Pass

Beware the dogs
Packs of dogs roam the streets of Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. They seemed pretty harmless and begged for food when I was¬†hiking up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. That said, I still wouldn’t pet them since they’re wild and may bite.

Of course, the packs of dogs are active during the day and spend all night barking as loud as possible. You’ll need to bring earplugs so that you can block out the sound of all-night barking and yelping.

Things You Must Know Before Visiting Bhutan

11 Things You Need to Know Before Your Visit Bhutan

 

 

 

Everything You Need to Know About Getting a Visa to Bhutan

Everything You Need to Know About Bhutan Visas

When I told my friends and family that I would be visiting Bhutan solo,¬†one of the most common questions was “how did you manage to¬†get a visit?” Many of my fellow Americans believe that travel to Bhutan is restricted and only a certain number of visas are issued a year, which is completely false.

A lot of people also think the visa process is incredibly complicated and while there are a couple of steps involved, it’s pretty straightforward.

All tourists visiting Bhutan must apply fora visa, unless you’re a citizen of the Maldives, India or Bangladesh. As part of the visa process, tourists must pay a daily tariff, which aligns to Bhutan’s tourism policy of “High Value, Low Impact.” Bhutan wants people visiting to respect their culture and the environment and requesting that tourists pay to visit the country is one of the best ways to ensure that.

Watching the fish at Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Watching the fish at Punakha Dzong

Costs
As mentioned above, you’ll pay a daily tariff in order to visit Bhutan. The daily tariff varies depending on when you’re traveling and how many are in your group but here are the rates for 2017:

Groups of 3 people or more:
US $200 per person per night during the months of January, February, June, July, August, December
US $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, November

If you’re a solo traveler, you’ll need to add $40 per night. If you’re traveling as a couple, you’ll add $30 per person per night.

Additionally, there’s a $40 for the visa itself.

These fees sound pretty steep but the cost is inclusive of the following services

  • Your accommodation in a minimum 3-star hotel. If you want to stay in a luxury hotel (and there are several in Bhutan), you’ll need to pay extra
  • All meals (this includes eating out at restaurants, which I did several times. I was a fan of the local food but some people aren’t and prefer to eat at the hotel)
  • Licensed Bhutanese tour guide as well as a driver. Note: You are required to hire a guide unless you’re from India, Bangladesh or the Maldives. You will have your very own tour guide and won’t be put on a coach tour with 30 other tourists, unless that’s something you want and specifically request. I traveled with Keys to Bhutan and I highly recommend them.
  • All internal transport (excluding flights)
  • Camping equipment for trekking
  • Entry into all monuments and temples
  • 35% of what you pay goes to the government, which helps pay for things like healthcare, education and infrastructure

The only extra things I paid for during the trip were a few soft drinks, a couple beers (yes, there’s a local beer company), a few souvenirs and the tip for the guide and the driver.

The local currency is the Bhutanese Ngultrum and your guide will help you exchange money before the trip starts.

Bhutanese Food: Momos and spicy chili in a cheese sauce
Bhutanese Food: Momos and spicy chili in a cheese sauce

Tour Company
Rather than arrange the visa yourself, your tour company will do this for you so it’s important to pick one out fairly early in the process. As I mentioned above, I used Keys to Bhutan based on their responsiveness to my questions and some other reviews that I read on Tripadvisor. If you have special interest such as trekking, seeing festivals, arrange an overnight stay with farmers, viewing wildlife, your tour company should be able to arrange this for you very easily.

Keys to Bhutan
Me with my Keys to Bhutan guide and driver

On most tour company websites, you’ll see suggested itineraries but since you’re getting a private tour, you can tweak the itinerary. It’s important that you decide where you want to visit before you arrive since your visa will specify where you can and can’t go in the country.

The tour company can also arrange your flights for you or you can book them yourself on Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines. I decided to book my flights myself since I had already paid for my tour and didn’t want to pay another wire transfer fee.

Arriving on Druk Air: Royal Bhutan Airlines
Arriving on Druk Air: Royal Bhutan Airlines

Before your tour company will officially apply for your visa, you’ll need to pay for the full cost of the tour in advance. You’ll be asked to wire money to your tour company via the Bank of Bhutan. I know this sounds sketchy but the tour company will provide you with instructions and it’s how every tourist books their trip. I went to my local Bank of America branch and the staff walked me through the process and two days later, the tour company had the money.

Your tour guide will also take care of booking your hotels for you so let them know if there is a specific place you want to stay, keeping in mind there are extra fees for luxury hotels. During my trip, I was booked at Dorji Elements in Thimphu, Meri Punesum in Punakha and Tenziling in Paro, which were all adequate 3* hotels.

Bhutan: Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest Monastery
Bhutan: Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Around two weeks before your departure, you’ll receive a confirmation of your visa which you’ll need to print out and bring with you. Doublecheck your visa very closely. Unfortunately I didn’t notice a typo in my last name and the staff at the Delhi airport weren’t going to let me board the Druk Air flight. After a couple hours of stressing out, they finally gave me an indemnification form and told me that I’d need to pay 40,000 rupees if I was denied entry into Bhutan. Once I arrived in Bhutan, they didn’t even mention the typo on my last name and I was through immigration within 5 minutes.

Bhutan: At the entrance to Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest Monastery
At the entrance to Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Is the Daily Fee and Visa Process Worth It?
Absolutely. As I mentioned in a previous post, you’ll get to experience a unique country in this little land-locked country. From stunning vistas to learning about Buddhism to eating the spiciest food you’ve probably ever tried, Bhutan has a lot to offer.

While the country isn’t as cheap to visit as some other countries in Asia, it’s definitely within reach of many travelers. As a solo traveler in January, I paid a daily fee of $240 USD, which included delicious meals, a private guide and transportation, which puts it at the mid-range level. If you want to splurge, the luxury hotels certainly add up but I found the 3* star hotels to be clean and comfortable.

Definitely consider adding Bhutan to your bucket list. It’s easy to get there on Druk Air via several cities in India, Kathmandu, Bangkok and Singapore.

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How to Get a Bhutan Visa

In Photos: Beautiful Bhutan

52 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Bhutan

In my last post, I talked about some of the reasons why you need to visit Bhutan. If you’re still not convinced, I’m including even more photos below that will make you want to visit The Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Bhutan: Why you need to visit the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan: Tiger's Nest Monastery
Bhutan: Tiger’s Nest Monastery

In late January, I finally checked off a bucket-list item I’ve had since I was 12 years old: visiting Bhutan, also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon. I started collecting postcards with my grandmother, Nana, when I was 10 years old and a couple of years later, I received a beautiful postcard from Bhutan. The people in the postcard were wearing their beautiful natural dress and the mysterious and alluring Paro Taktsang, also known more commonly as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, was shrouded in a layer of fog. I had no idea where Bhutan was located so I went to the school library and did as much research as I could by using our encyclopedias. I knew that one day I would visit Bhutan but I didn’t realize it would take 23 years for it to happen.

Keys to Bhutan
Me with my Keys to Bhutan guide and driver

Bhutan isn’t the easiest country to visit. Their strategy around tourism is “high quality, low impact” which means that there are some barriers to visit that aren’t in place for nearby countries like Nepal. In a future blog post, I’ll talk in more detail on how you can plan a trip to Bhutan.

Here are some reasons why you need to visit the Land of the Thunderdragon as soon as possible:

Sustainable Tourism
The country is not overrun with mass tourism the same way other countries like Nepal, India and Thailand are. The government imposes a $250 per day for all tourists, except those from India, Bangladesh or the Maldives. While that may sound steep, the cost includes your accommodations, guide & driver, entrance fees and food. A portion of the daily tourist tariff (35%) goes towards free healthcare, education and tourism infrastructure.

Bhutan: Paro Dzong
Bhutan: Paro Dzong

They Love Chilis
I am a self-proclaimed spicy food addict and have been known to visit Santa Fe, NM just so that I can get my fill of hatch green chili.

I was happy to discover that Bhutanese cuisine is also incredibly spicy and almost every local dish has just as much chilis as veggies & meat. Within the first few hours of my arrival, I told my guide that I want to eat at local restaurants whenever possible since I’m not a huge fan of hotel buffets. He warned me several times that the food is incredibly spicy and most tourists can’t tolerate it. I think both he and the tour company manager were amused when I ate all my food at a local restaurant in Thimphu.

One of the most well-known dishes is Ema datshi, a spicy dish made with green chili peppers in a cheesy sauce. When I took my first bite of Ema datshi at the hotel, I mistakingly thought the green chili peppers were green beans. Whoops! At least I enjoy spicy food.

Ema Datshi, spicy green chilis in Bhutan
Ema Datshi, spicy green chilis in Bhutan

My favorite dish though, had to be Kewa datshi, which is potatoes with red chili peppers in a cheesy sauce.

If you can’t tolerate spicy food, don’t worry. The hotels serve a mix of Indian/Chinese/Western food so you can avoid the local food entirely if you wish.

No Western Chain Stores
While there are a few international chain hotels, such as Starwood’s Le Meridien Thimphu and Le Meridien Paro, no chain restaurants or stores exist in Bhutan. You won’t see a single McDonald’s, KFC, 7/11, etc. The only country I’ve traveled to that had zero western chains was Cuba, although that’s quickly starting to change.

Bhutan: Shopping in Thimphu
Bhutan: Shopping in Thimphu

Rest & Relaxation
There’s a lot of to see in Bhutan but there are no big cities with your typical traffic jams and crowds. The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu, only has 170,000 residents and zero traffic lights (although there is one man directing traffic at the largest traffic circle). Much of my time was spent walking and taking in the fresh air and beautiful scenery.

Although my hotels had wifi, the signal was very weak, making it too difficult to check work email, which enabled me to unplug the entire time I was there.

Bhutan: Field in Punakha
Bhutan: Walking through a field in Punakha

Culture
Bhutan is¬†an incredibly unique. They have more monks than soldiers. No traffic lights or fast food chains. There’s a national dress code. Traditional architecture must be maintained. They’re one of the few, if only countries, to measure their Gross National Happiness and until 1999, they didn’t have access to the Internet or cable TV. Even today, only 40% of the citizens use the Internet.

Walking around in Thimphu, you’ll see some teenagers and other folks in a sweatshirt and jeans, talking on their cellphone but it’s still much more rare to see western dress than the traditional kira or gho.

Bhutan: Women wearing the traditional kira
Women wearing the traditional kira

As a visitor, you won’t see hordes of tourists but you’ll have the opportunity to observe daily life in the temples, villages and even in the capital, Thimphu. When I wandered around Thimphu, it was the day before the new school year and parents were rushing to buy backpacks and school supplies.

Bhutan: Back to school shopping in Paro
Back to school shopping in Paro

To Experience a Unique Local Flavor You Won’t Get Anywhere Else
When we were driving down the road in Punakha, the driver pulled to the side of the road and told me that the entire royal family was passing. Apparently it’s not uncommon for tourists to have encounters with the royal family, given that it’s such a small country. People in Bhutan genuinely love the royal family and you’ll find their portraits in almost every home, restaurant and temple.

Bhutan: Penis in Punakha
Phallus in Punakha

The town of Punakha is also home to an unusual buddhist shrine, Chimi Lakhang, dedicated to Drupka Kunley. Kunley is better known as the Divine Madman as well as the “Saint of 5,000 Women.” Due to his teachings, you’ll see cartoon-like phalluses painted on homes in business in Punakha as well as other small towns, which are thought to keep demons at bay.

The Plane Landing
While it’s possible to travel overland via India, most visitors to Bhutan land in Paro, flying on either Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines.

Part is considered one of the world’s most dangerous airports due to the unique landscape and there are only ~25 pilots qualified to land there.¬†Paro is surrounded by peaks as high as 18,000 feet as well as small hills close to the airport. Flights are only allowed to land and take off during the day.

Bhutan: Paro Airport
Paro international airport

If you fly from Delhi to Paro and sit on the left side of the plane, you’ll also have an amazing view of Mt. Everest.

I had 5 full days to explore to Bhutan and I look forward to returning one day, possibly during festival season. In a future article, I’ll share some practical tips and advice for booking a trip to Bhutan.

Why You Need to Visit Bhutan