The Happiest Country - Bhutan
Imagine living on one of the most gorgeous islands ever viewed by man but on this island you work 10 months out of the year to almost complete exhaustion and have two months off to regroup. Where would you go? What would you even imagine a destination to be when you live in a destination? For my husband and I it’s a 6 weeks trek across Europe and Asia that led us to a place I’d never even heard of but was definitely somewhere that will forever sit in my heart.
I don’t want it to come across that we stumbled onto this destination and we just so happened to get in because that is definitely not the case. We got to visit the Buddhist kingdom in the country of Bhutan. The landlocked country is in South Asia in the Eastern Himalayas bordering Tibet and China. To enter the country you have to apply for a $40 visa well in advance to your visit through a tour operator (not embassy) with whom you also book your entire stay. Give yourself at least 3 months to do all of this to make sure that everything is approved, no matter how long you’re planning on staying. Your visa is processed online by the tour operators and are approved by the Tourism Council of Bhutan after full payment has been made. You’re then issued a visa clearance letter that you must present to immigration upon arrival at the airport.
Before getting into how absolutely amazing this place is, there are a lot of details surrounding entry and your stay in this country. Not only do you you apply for your visa through the tour company but you actually book your entire stay through them. It’s mandatory, sorry, not getting around it. No shortcuts or secrets or back alley services. If you want to visit this country, you must be accompanied by a tour guide at all times and you must book this guide through a tour company. There is a Minimum Daily Package set by the government as a way to control tourism and is NON NEGOTIABLE. Seriously, don’t even try. If this is a country you’d like to visit come to terms with the fact that you’re going to pay a premium but in the daily package fee all of your accommodations, meals, guides, programs, anything you can dream of doing is included. A part of that fee also goes towards the free education for the Bhutanese children, healthcare and poverty alleviation. The Minimum Daily Package Fees are as follows:
High Season: March, April, May, September, October, and November
$250 per person per day, for a group of three or more people.
$280 per person per day, for a group of two people.
$290 per day for single individuals.
Low Season: January, February, June, July, August, and December
$200 per person per day, for a group of three or more people.
$230 per person per day, for a group of two people.
$240 per day for single individuals.
Discounts are available for children and students.
We spent 4 days in Bhutan, which, admittedly was not enough time. The landscape, the history, the food, the people, the serenity left me longing to stay longer and learn more about their culture and lifestyle. What we did, however in our short time there was magnificent and I can’t wait to visit again!
We flew into Paro, Bhutan through Bangkok which is one of the few entry points into Bhutan. Flying alongside that mountain range was amazing! So picturesque and almost unimaginable. We were immediately whisked away to Thimpu which is the capital and where we were spending our first two days in the country. Immediately the altitude change hit me and I found myself fighting to clear a flight of stairs. Not a great indicator of a trip where the majority of the activities revolve around hiking. We acclimated, napped, stared at the scenery, heard stories about the king, drank delicious Bhutanese beer and heard stories of life in Bhutan both to the present and past. My favorites were hearing the admiration each citizen has for their king, both current and former. My least, were of the hikes we were about to partake in but I pushed that to the side with each sip of Chabchhu.
We awoke the next morning to start our first day of trekking at the Buddha Dordenma. The statue is 177 ft tall and I was in complete awe. The statue itself was a wonder. But inside of the colossal build were thousands and thousands of smaller buddhas on display. We started the hike and after an hour and a half of winding forest paths we made it to the other side of the jungle to our first Bhutanese lunch.
We wandered around Thimpu for the next day, continued to acclimate to the altitude, visited the National Memorial Chorten, shopped in the markets and ate spicy chilies in cream sauce while drinking butter tea. On our last night in Thimpu we found ourselves at an Indian restaurant drinking beer and singing karaoke.
The next morning we headed on the hour and a half drive back to Paro. This town, although the airport city is smaller in population than Thimpu and there is really one reason aside from entry and exit into the country to make this a stop, the infamous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
The entire trip culminated to this one last trek. If you’re not particularly athletic this may be a challenge. If you are particularly athletic this is still a challenge. It’s two mile, almost entirely, inclined hike up a mountain towards the monastery and then back down. Half way up the mountain trail is a charming little restaurant where you can stop for lunch or a much needed tea break before taking the second half of the trip.
I cannot put into words how incredibly serene the monastery was at the very top. Cell phones, cameras, no electronics or bags were allowed in. After conquering the mountain, unplugging with everything you’ve trekked up with and entering that holy space, you immediately feel the connection. This was absolutely the literal and figurative pinnacle of the trip. We’d met so many amazing people who were genuinely the kindest and most in touch people we’d ever met; we’d conquered this mountain that seemed almost impossible during some parts and we made it to this point, which in its ancient beauty seemed to provide this understanding that you are in the now. Nothing before this point matters anymore and nothing beyond this point is important. You are here, and in this moment all you have is now.