In the native Bhutanese language of Dzongkha Bhutan is called Druk Yul which is translated as “Land of Thunder Dragon“. It got this name because of the intense thunderstorms that rushed through the valleys from the Himalayas. In those early days the booming thunder and lightning were thought to come from a dragon.
Bhutan has always been high on my bucket list of travel destinations. It’s a place of incredible landscapes, architecture, people, and food. It is also the only country in the world that has an index to measure their “Gross National Happiness“. How neat is that?
I booked a private tour with Maebar Travel which enabled me to experience this beautiful country for 9 glorious days. The itinerary took me through Paro, Thimpu, Phobjikha, Wangdue and Punakha, and the newly opened Haa Valley. Rather than write a single GIANT article encompassing the entire trip, I’ve decided to break it up into a few articles about each place I visited.
As Paro is the gateway for International travelers arriving to this beautiful kingdom, I figured this would be a great place to start! I guarantee you’ll want to buckle your seatbelt for the landing…
One of the world’s most difficult landings!
The Paro International Airport is rated as one of the most difficult airports for pilots to takeoff and land. In fact, with the addition of Bhutan Airlines operating from Paro there are less than 20 pilots in the world who are qualified to land there (talk about job security!). It is difficult because the pilots must fly by sight (without the use of instruments) through the valleys before touching down. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the narrow valley is sandwiched between treacherous mountains!
During takeoff and landings I’d wager that passenger emotions usually range from intense faith in the pilot’s skills to a renewed and fretful faith in their deity of choice. It’s a little scary to see rooftops and telephone poles from the towns lining the sides of the mountains seemingly meters away from the aircraft wing tips.
Personally, the landing for me wasn’t so bad as the plane is decreasing it’s speed it kind of feels like it’s coasting lazily through the valleys. Takeoffs are another story. The plane is rapidly ascending whilst banking through the valleys. All the while the engines are roaring as the plane tries to gain both speed and altitude. About 10 minutes into this wild ride I began to wonder if I’d packed an extra pair of underpants in my carry-on.
TIP: Upgrades from Economy to First Class are about $100 per person roundtrip. If you find the flight is “full” ask about First Class. It’s worth it!
TIP: Ask for receipts when shopping for any artifacts and save them (even hand written RECEIPTS). the customs officers may give you a difficult time if you cannot prove that the items are not expensive antiques!
Exchanging money in Paro…
After a quick immigration process and collection of our luggage we met our guide, Karchung, and driver, Tenzin. Our first desire was to exchange our US Dollars for the Bhutanese currency, the Ngultrum. In order to do this we went to the one and only bank in Paro, the Bhutan National Bank Limited. It felt like a bank from an old west movie. There were tellers lined up along the wall and a security guard sitting in a chair with a shotgun looking bored. I let Karchung do all the talking.
The Bhutanese Ngultrum has the same value as the Indian Rupee. Don’t be surprised if you receive a bunch of 100 rupee bills along with your 100 ngultrum bills. The 100 rupee notes are accepted everywhere in Bhutan (though larger denomination bills are not).
Places to see in Paro
Paro is one of the most historical districts in Bhutan. The Paro valley has historically been the doorway for trade and invaders from Tibet. As a result today there are many beautiful fortresses and temples to visit.
National Museum of Bhutan (Ta Dzong)
A dzong is a distinctive type of fortress architecture found mainly in Bhutan and the former Tibet. It is identified by its large towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks’ accommodation. As a result most of the sites that tourists visit in Bhutan will end in the word dzong.
Ta Dzong was built by the first governor of Paro in 1649 to serve as a watchtower to warn Rinpung Dzong located below of any invaders approaching.
As it was situated on the hillside right above Rinpung Dzong it was able to serve it’s purpose well.
Of course as time went on the risk of “invaders” overland by foot soldiers were no longer a threat. In 1968 Ta Dzong was officially renovated from a watchtower fortress and reopened as the National Museum of Bhutan. The museum houses a wide variety of culturally significant items from all over the country representing different eras spanning from 4000 BCE to the present day.
Rinpung Dzong was built in 1644. It’s name is translated as “the fortress of the heap of jewels.”
As Rinpung Dzong is also an active monastery, it’s customary to cover up. In the picture our guide, Karchung, wraps up in a scarf. We also covered ourselves in the tashi khada, a thin white scarf we each received as a welcoming on arrival.
The hand painted religious murals inside are incredible. These paintings are visual stories about historical and Buddhist lore.
In 1906, this dzong nearly burned to the ground. All-important relics were lost to the fire, and nothing could be salvaged except for the Thongdrol (a religious image of Guru Rinpoche) Guru Rinpoche is a leading religious figure in Bhutan as it’s believed he is the 2nd incarnation of Buddha. It is also he who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
The Thongdrol is on a 20 x 20 metre-wide Thangka (a Tibetan hand painting on cotton and silk). The saved Thangka is displayed annually during Paro Tshechu a festivel held the 9th to 15th of the 2nd month every year since 1678.
Where’s all the tourists?
You may notice something missing from many of these pictures. Where are all the tourists, right?
Bhutan opened its country to tourism in 1974. That year they had a whopping 287 tourists. Of course the numbers have climbed over the years. In 2017 they welcomed the most international tourists: 71,000. Why so few?
For one thing there’s only so many flights a day that can fly in and out of Paro, especially when you have so few pilots qualified to do so. But the biggest reason folks are not lining up to get into Bhutan’s door is that there’s a common perception that it’s very expensive. To that I say yes, and no.
Of course it’s more expensive to visit than say Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. But Bhutan is completely different than those places, and actually on the ground things are quite inexpensive for food, drink, and shopping. What makes travel to Bhutan expensive is the daily tariff and surcharges you have to pay in order to visit.
When to go and what you pay for.
Every day you spend in Bhutan (during high season) it will cost you $250 per person (an extra $30/$40 if you’re traveling solo or as a couple). For the low season the price decreases to $200 per day–but you risk experiencing terrible weather during your trip. The high season is March-May and September-November. The low season is December-February and June-August.
With a daily tariff it certainly adds up if you have a large family. However, it covers the expenses for your entire tour (the guide, the transportation, all entrance fees, your meals (not inclusive of alcohol), and your hotels (very nice 3 and 4 star accommodations).
So for a person or couple, it’s actually quite reasonable!
Built in the year 629 AD by the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo, Kyichu Lhakhang is the one of the oldest standing monasteries in Bhutan.
As you enter the through the gates you’ll immediately feel the serenity in the air. This has been a quiet place for worship and reflection for nearly 1400 years. You can feel it.
We were fortunate to come at a time when the trees were blossoming. It really added to the beauty of the grounds.
Along the walls are prayer wheels, with a covered area containing large prayer wheels and benches to rest on nearby. Worshippers spin the wheels by hand as they contemplate and pray. With each rotation the large wheels gently stroke against hanging bells in a steady rhythm. The atmosphere is tranquil with the steady bells and chirping birds being the only sounds in the still air.
The inner sanctum…
As you make your way closer to the center you’ll find the original temple. It’s small and filled with religious relics. No cameras are allowed unfortunately. When you step inside the first thing you’ll notice is the highly polished tracks along the wooden floor. It’s been polished by the centuries of foot traffic. Near the alter are 2 large polished indentations in the thick wooden floor board.
Over time these indentations have been created by people standing and kneeling in the same spot for to pray. It’s really amazing to contemplate how many people visiting over the many centuries wore the wood down with their feet in this exact spot.
In the small courtyard there are orange trees that are also famous. It’s believed these trees bear fruit throughout the year.
The cultural icon of Bhutan!
When people think of Bhutan it’s the Taktsang Monastery, or “Tiger’s Nest“, that most often comes to mind. It is Bhutan’s cultural icon and most discovered image found when searching for information about Bhutan. It’s a must see place when visiting Bhutan. But it’s going to take some time and effort to do so.
This picture was taken from the parking area. If you look at the hill jutting above the trees you’ll see a small white building. That’s your destination. It will take about 5 hours roundtrip from this point. I hope you brought good shoes!
Rent a horse!
For $15 per person you can have a pony take you halfway up the trail. Do it. The ponies are well taken care of and you’ll be supporting the locals. These ponies also deliver food and supplies to the monastery.
But after dropping you off at the halfway point you’ll realize that there’s still plenty of road to cover…much of it over steeply inclined hillside.
If you want this to be a positive experience then pace yourself, drink plenty of water, and don’t be afraid to take breaks. But most important, wear the right shoes. I can’t tell you how many folks I saw wearing flip flops. It’s not that kind of party. I promise you.
See how close we are? See how happy we look? We didn’t have a clue. Right around the corner we realized we had to go down by steep rocky steps halfway down the mountainside then climb up the winding rocky steps of the other mountainside to get to the temple. Uggggg….
It’s worth it! Trust me.
Once we made it to the monastery, like many of the sites in Bhutan, we had to put away our cameras. In 1692, the Taktsang Monastery was built on a sacred cave site that had been used for over 800 years previous. It was built by Tenzin RabgyeIndian who is mentioned as being the reincarnation of Guru Padmasambhava, who is considered the “protector saint of Bhutan“. The legend is that Guru Padmasambhava flew to this site on the back of a large flying tigress in the 7th century. He anointed the site for the building of a monastery.
The original cave is locked away and it is only shown publicly once a year. However there are tons of ancient religious relics, and beautiful views from the monastery itself. It’s worth the extra effort to get to it!
For most of the attractions in Bhutan you will find them blessedly free of throngs of tourists. The Taktsang Monastery is the exception. Don’t expect to have the place to yourself. The reasons for its popularity are many.
First their hours of opening are limited so folks have a narrow window to visit. Secondly, because there’s only so much daylight available to make the long trek up and down the mountain folks have to leave around the same time to begin. Finally EVERY tour in Bhutan seems to have this site on their itinerary.
That means pretty much anyone visiting Bhutan for whatever reason is going to have a side trip here. Fortunately the crowds are not so bad, and as folks keep moving you will easily find moments of peace and solitude.
After 5 hours of trekking if you’re like me there’s probably only one thing on your mind, well maybe two things: food and beer. Which is a great segue to my next topic…
Where to eat in Paro
Even though Paro has a population of less than 12,000 people, when it comes to Bhutan it’s considered a major city. The international airport and the many sites bring a lot of visitors. As a result there are also some good options for eating. Many of the dining options are understandably connected to hotels.
Samden Norzin Hotel & Restaurant
Paro was where I was first introduced to Bhutanese cuisine. The restaurant located on the ground floor of the Hotel Samden Norzin is where I received the delicious introduction!
If you’re not familiar with Bhutanese food let me start by telling you about their national dish, ema datshi. Ema means chili and datshi means cheese. Their national dish is basically chillies and cheese. You see, in Bhutan chillies are cooked like vegetables and not sparingly either. This is the green chili ema datshi. It’s got some serious heat!
To extinguish the fire!
Which is why you have to drink large bottles of Druk Lager. There are other versions of Druk which I will introduce to you in my other articles, but for my Paro experience this is what I had to temper the heat from that chili cheese dish!
For our first meal in Paro we had a spread of stir fried noodles, fiery ema datshi, the most amazing asparagus I’ve ever eaten, kewa datshi (similar to scalloped potatoes), and baked chicken.
The restaurant is cozy inside and very welcoming. They also make some delicious momos and noodle soup…but I will write more about that dish when I cover my experience in Thimphu!
Pema Farm House
Some of the best meals I had during my trip to Bhutan were in farmer’s houses. It’s not uncommon, especially in rural areas where restaurants may not be available, for farmer’s to open their homes to travelers as a place to stay or to get a bite to eat.
Located above the Kyichu Lhakhang, the Pema Farm House is a few centuries old. The original clay stoves are still present though only used for special ceremonial meals. The modern kitchen is still a bit rustic but our hostess, Yeshi Peldon, had maximized the space with efficiency and was happy to show us how to prepare a few local dishes.
The Joys of Cooking!
I don’t consider myself a whiz in the kitchen but I love to learn about cooking, especially unique cultural dishes. I’ve enjoyed learning to cook in Luang Prabang and even on my home turf in Bangkok. So when Yeshi offered to show my gal and I how to cook ema datshi and phasa sikam paa (a dish of pork and radishes) I was thrilled.
That is I was thrilled until we started making the ema datshi. She basically grabbed the fiery chillies and broke them up by hand….seeds and all. When my gal mimicked the effort she said her hands felt like she was shaking stinging bees for a few hours. She was terrified throughout the night that she’d accidentally touch her eyes. Have you ever been asked to help remove someone’s contact lenses before?
We really enjoyed the resulting feast. There was jasha maroo (tender chicken and vegetable stew), phas sikaam paa (the pork belly and radish), spicy ema datshi with red chilies, stewed thin slices of beef with vegetables, momos (steamed buns with various fillings), noodles, and the special Bhutanese red rice.
Don’t forget the ara!
The meal was washed down with ladles of warm ara with egg and butter. Ara is arguably Bhutan’s national drink. You can have it with or without meal (any meal). It’s is made from rice, maize, millet, or wheat, and it can be either fermented or distilled. For the fermented version it tastes similar to Japanese saki. With the egg and butter it tastes kind of like what I’d imagine egg drop soup would taste like if you used saki instead of water for the broth.
I rather enjoyed the drink. Rest assured my future articles will be containing a few more stories about it. I especially look forward to detailing my introduction to this intoxicating beverage and befriending a woman who brews it in a place that ought to be called “Penis Town“.
Something extra special…
As we were having such a wonderful time our hosts decided to break out the “good stuff”. This distilled bottle of ara is special because it contains a very rare parasite that is only found above 4,000 meters. The parasite normally infects yaks, and it’s my hypothesis that the person who thought that putting them into bottles of distilled ara was probably experiencing a bit of altitude sickness whilst under the influence of distilled ara.
It’s said the parasite gives the ara a different flavor and has a medicinal value. I’m not sure what that flavor might be as I’m no ara or parasite tasting expert. But I was deeply honored they shared it with me, and am happy to share the knowledge with you!
If interested in having an enjoyable meal experience with Yeshi and Pema in their traditional home you can contact them +975-17982509 (B-Mobile) or +975-77368059 (T-Cell).
Where to stay in Paro
Because of the international airport being located in Paro, visitors to Bhutan frequently stay at least one night in Paro. As a result there’s plenty of places to stay ranging from 5 star hotels to simple homestay arrangements. During my 9 day visit to Bhutan I had 2 overnight stays in Paro (what this article covers).
I really liked the first place we stayed, but wasn’t impressed with the second place. Which is why I recommend Gangtey Palace Hotel for your stay in Paro.
Gangtey Palace Hotel
Gangtey Palace was originally built in the late 1800’s by the governor of Paro. It’s said the governor had stopped there to rest his entourage and fell in love with the beauty of the location. After purchasing the land from the family he hired architects to build a palace on the site. This became the official residence for governors or “penlops” who administered the lands in and around Paro.
The Gangtey Palace has a rich history. After the crowning of the first king of Bhutan in 1907, the governor of Paro made several repairs and reconstructed the palace to be used as residence for the king. In the 1940s, the palace was given to Raja S.T Dorji, the father of the present Royal Grandmother. Later in the 1940s the palace became the private residence of Jigme Palden Dorji, Bhutan’s first Prime Minister who lived there for a very short while.
Today, the property is owned and managed by, Tobgye S. Dorji, who was a former ambassador of Bhutan to Bangladesh, Geneva, and Kuwait. In 1994, the palace was turned into a hotel to allow foreign visitors to have an authentic Bhutanese lifestyle experience in a historically significant place.
For an interesting read and look to the past you can see Gangtey palace featured in national geographic’s “Castles in the Air: Experiences and Journeys in Unknown Bhutan” article published in 1914!
As you can see below the Gangtey Palace Hotel boasts impressive views of the Paro valley.
From across the valley you can clearly see the Rinpung Dzong which is lit up beautifully in the evening. For an amazing experience with real charm and ambience I highly recommend this hotel for your stay in Paro.
Our next stop in Bhutan (and next article) was Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. From Paro to Thimphu it’s only 50 km along good paved highway that winds around the mountains and hills (as most roads in Bhutan do).
Our first stop en route of course was to pick up some snacks. These strings of hardened yak cheese called chhurpi are literally hours of enjoyment. You basically pop one in your mouth and slowly let it dissolve to a texture you can chew on. While driving along in Bhutan it was not uncommon to find roadside stand with strings of hard cheese, dried chilies, dried meats, and fresh fruits.
Bye bye, Paro!
Around the midpoint between Thimphu and Paro, the Wang Chuu (or Raidāk River) branches off to create the tributary Paro Chhu. Here there are larger roadside stands resembling trading posts and scavenging monkeys scurrying about. That’s when you’ve left the Paro area to get to the Thimphu area.
I hope you enjoyed this article and that it may be helpful for you if you’re planning to see Bhutan (especially Paro). If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer you either in the comments section below or you can contact me directly!