Coming from my previous article, Everything You Need To Know Before Planning A Trip To Bhutan, you already know that all tourists are required to be booked under an accredited Agency to commence a tour around this country. With this in mind, I actually started scouting for a list of suppliers since 2018- comparing rates & weighing pros and cons- because I know it would take time to put this together and choose THE one (I ended up choosing Travel Bhutan Club in the end, by the way.) Everything was set around January this year and I was supposed to go on this trip with my friend, Erika, last April 2018 during Holy Week. Unfortunately, due to a conflicting work trip (which eventually also didn’t push through ~meh~), I needed to cancel last minute.
I kind of shelved off the idea of going to this mysterious country and thought I’ll just go there in maybe 3 years but one fine day around the last week of May, I woke up and realized I have some vacation day leaves that are going to expire before end of quarter three and didn’t want to waste them so I picked up the conversation with the agency, wired the necessary fees, and decided to proceed with this trip- even if it’s going to be just me alone (since it’s hard to find someone who was game to go on a big trip like this, last minute- literally less than a month to go.)
My journey to Bhutan started in Singapore. I went there with my family for a weekend eat-fest and I initially wanted to do a smooth transition to my next trip by taking the Singapore-Paro straight flight. Unfortunately, Druk Air only flies out once a week from SIN (every Thursday.) Since I didn’t want to waste any extra days, I just decided to take a night flight from Singapore to Bangkok and did a “manual lay-over” for 10 hours before flying out to Bhutan.
Tamchog Lhakang- Memorial Chorten- Textile Museum- Coffee Break- Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Center- Art Shop- Lunch– Mountain Top- College of Astrology- Crafts Bazaar- Hotel
Tip when flying in to Bhutan- get a left-window seat to have the to chance to see the dazzling scenic views of the world’s highest glacial peaks of Himalayas- including Mt. Everest and Mt. Kanchenjunga. I arrived in PBH- Paro, Bhutan, on June 10 at around 9 in the morning and instantly felt a unique sense of calmness upon stepping out of the plane- a good sign of what awaits me in this exciting solo trip to Bhutan.
Karma, my tour guide for the whole trip, greeted me with a welcome gift- a white shawl. We then proceeded to the car and Kim, our driver, drove us to our first stop- Tamchog Lhakang, a temple located on the way from Paro to Thimphu, dedicated to Tangthong Gyalpo, a 15thcentury Tibetan Bridge Builder. To reach the temple, one must cross an iron-bridge that was reconstructed using some of the original chain links he personally built.
After that, we proceeded to the heart of the capital and went to Memorial Chorten next. This Stupa, or shrine, was built to honor the third King or Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.
Next stop- National Textile Museum. It was a very educational trip as I got to witness how colorful the textile industry of Bhutan is- the story behind the intricate patterns and weaving methods they use per region and understand the roles played by this product in various sectors of the society: may it be in religious, official, or in social events.
Took a quick break after to meet up with Rigzin, the travel consultant from Travel Bhutan Club, who designed my itinerary. We had a quick chat about the similarities and differences between Bhutan and Philippines over coffee and some snacks.
Since I wanted to see the weaving process in action, Karma brought me to Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Center next where I got to see locals in action, weaving these beautiful textiles. Also popped by the Art Shop just beside it and went into the art heaven for a good 10 minutes.
It was past 12 when we finally settled in an old traditional Bhutanese house to have lunch. It was my first introduction into the world of their unique local food. Bhutanese cuisine’s main carb is red rice. A very distinct dish they have is Ema Datshi or chili peppers covered in cheesy sauce. It can be considered as their national dish as everyone always needs to have this in their meal.
After lunch, we drove to the top of one of the mountains to rest a bit and enjoyed the panoramic city view of the capital, Thimphu Valley.
Upon driving back down to the city, we passed by College of Astrology. Good thing, the monks were in class as I didn’t want to ask about my future HAHA. Am I weird for not wanting to know that? I’m paranoid about knowing more than what I should know and prefer to live and enjoy life, one day at a time.
Last stop for the day was the Crafts Bazaar in the heart of the Thimphu town. Bhutan imports a lot of their goods from nearby countries like India but one thing’s for sure, these handicrafts sold in this strip of quaint shops are all handmade locally!
Ended my day at 3pm and checked in my hotel- Hotel Thimphu Towers. I thought it was quite early to cap off my first day but little did I know, I apparently needed this rest for all the upcoming hikes in the coming days. It turned out well as I was able to peacefully people watch from my windows overlooking the Clock Tower Square, which is like the main gathering area in the capital town.
Buddha Point Kuensel Phodrang- Hike: Kuensel Phodrang Nature Park- Takin National Park- Lunch – Changlimithang Stadium – Thimphu Post Office– National Institute for Zorig Chusum- Folk Heritage Museum- National Library of Bhutan- Hotel
The moment I was worried about has finally come. It was raining when I woke up. I forgot to mention earlier that aside from April having a lot of holidays making it the best time to go on a vacation with minimal leaves to file, it is also Spring season in Bhutan, making it one of the most favorable weather conditions to be in the country. However, pushing my trip to June, I took the risk to be there when it’s bordering Summer aka monsoon season. I was scared that plans will get cancelled but we proceeded anyway- apparently all I needed was my raincoat and energy level 100 to survive the day.
First stop was to visit the giant 169ft statue of Buddha Dordenma that sits on top of a mountain, overlooking the southern Thimphu. Apart from a symbol of celebrating the centennial of the Bhutanese monarchy, this statute also fulfills the prophecy of Guru Padmasambhava that “a statue of Shakyamuni would be built in the region between Wong and Paro, bestow blessings of peace and harmony in the world.”
Next up, my fist of many hikes in Bhutan! Took me two hours and a half to finish the Kuenselphodrang Trail.
From there, we drove to Takin Reserve to see the national animal of Bhutan.
After lunch, we proceeded to Changlimithang Stadium to witness some archery action. While Archery is Bhutan’s National Sports, to the locals, it’s much more than that. Remember the story of an Indian Prince who won the hand of Princess Yosodhara via an archery contest who later become known as Buddha? For the Bhutanese, archery is legend, heritage, history, love, and tradition.
Up next, a #SingTravels tradition. Went to the Thimphu Post Office to buy some postcards and was surprised to see a personalized stamp service station inside. I have long thought of this (isn’t it nice to have your actual snap to be the stamp on the post card you’re sending out?) and was wondering why it’s not a staple in post offices across the world. Definitely a pleasant surprise that I was able to try this finally- in Bhutan, out of all the places in the world.
My favorite stop for the day was – National Institute for Zorig Chusum. Established in 1971, this institute hones the talent of the young Bhutanese community (for free) on the 13 traditional arts and crafts. Promoting education and preserving culture in 1 go! The 13 arts and crafts are as follow: Calligraphy– Yig zo; Painting– Lha zo; Sculpting– Jim zo; Metal Casting– Lug zo; Gold and Silver Crafts– Troe zo; Woodscraft– Shing zo; Embroidery– Tshemzo; Papermaking– Shog zo; Masonry– Do zo; Carving– Par zo; Textiles– Thagzo; Cane and Bamboo Weaving– Tshar zo; Blacksmith– Gar zo.
Just crossed the street to head over the Folk Heritage Museum where I got to see the Bhutanese culture and way of life via its 3-storey 150-year old traditional rammed mud and timber house.
Last stop for the day was National Library of Bhutan where sacred religious books, manuscripts, and scriptures are archived well to tell the story of the past and present to the future generations.
Skipped dinner and slept early on Day 2 as my head was aching so bad. Apparently, I suffered altitude sickness due to the high elevation of the trail I trekked earlier.
Lungchu Tsey Pilgrimage- Lungtsezelkha Temple- Dochula Pass- Druk Wangyal Lhakhang- Druk Wangyal Chortens- Lunch- Chhimi Lhakhang- Sopsokha Village- Hotel
Started the day with a 4.5-hour hike up the Lungchu Tsey Pilgrimage, my hardest one for this entire trip. 2 biggest challenges hiking this tricky trail were: it was raining hard the whole morning, it was SO slippery (it didn’t help that I wasn’t wearing a pair of real hiking shoes) + altitude was 3,700 meters above ground, it was so hard to breathe.
I seriously considered backing out and just returning to the ground after a few minutes due to the difficulty but my guide kept on pushing me positively and said that the more hardships I endure, the more blessings I will be receiving upon reaching the temple atop. I was convinced so I pushed myself to reach the end goal: Lungtsezelkha Temple.
I can remember how numb my feet were upon descending that it took 10 times of effort for me to take even just one step!
Upon reaching the ground, we explored Dochula Pass. This is situated at around 3100 meters (approx. 1017 feet) above sea level and is a place that everyone who is traveling from Thimphu to the eastern part of Bhutan (where our next destination, Punakha, is in) will definitely pass by. 2 popular sites here: the temple Druk Wangyal Lhakhang and Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. The latter is where the famous 108 chortens can be found and was built in commemoration of the victory of Bhutan in the Battle of Indian of Insurgence in 2003.
After lunch, we finally arrived in Punakha, and our first stop was Chhimi Lhakang, also known as the Fertility Temple. It is said that this is the exact spot where Drukpa Kunley subdued a dog incarnated demon using the phallus or his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” and trapped it in a rock (which still stands in front of the temple now.) This Tibetan Monk is known for his unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism, earning him the nickname of “Divine Madman.”
The temple is quite modest with the phalluses depiction but in contrast, be prepared with what you’re going to see outside. The houses in the village right across are painted with different imageries of phalluses. The locals believe that phallus brings fertility, prosperity, and will ward off evil, thus, the more paintings and statues of it, the safer they feel.
Hiked around the paddy fields full of mustard plants and rice in Sopsokha Village and even spotted a random rainbow along the way before heading back to the car.
Settled in my next accommodation for the next few days, Hotel Vara.
Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten- River Rafting- Lunch- Punakha Dzong- Punakha Suspension Bridge- Hotel
I wasn’t kidding when I said I have hikes for breakfast these days! Started Day 4 with a 45-minute hike under the scorching heat of the sun to reach the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten.
The panoramic view on top of this temple was incredible! Sat there for a good hour and chatted with some new friends over the topic of climate change.
Since today was a bit of a chill day, I decided to do river rafting along Mo Chu River. It was the single most expensive expense I’ve had in Bhutan, (because I needed to rent the whole boat and had no one to share the cost with since I was traveling alone.) Nonetheless, I’ll charge that to experience HAHA.
After lunch, we proceeded to Punakha Dzong, dubbed as the most beautiful fortress in Bhutan and is situated in the confluence of Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers. Dzongs or fortresses serve as Bhutan’s regional center for administrative and religious activities. I loved going around the fortress and appreciating the wonderfully preserved rich Bhutanese arts, culture, and architecture. Did you know? Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1955. Because of its low elevation, temperature here is quite warmer than other districts, making it the favorite winter destination of Bhutanese.
Last stop before heading to the hotel was the longest suspension iron-bridge in Bhutan. It might not seem that scary in photos but I was a scared-y cat and wasn’t able to cross all the way to the other side due to the strong wind that was swaying the whole bridge!
Dochula Pass- Centenary Farmer’s Market- Lunch- Chelela Pass- Haa Valley- Settle in Local Bhutanese House
Day 5 involves a series of long road trips. We departed Punakha early and headed our way to the west. We passed by the Dochula Pass again and this time around, went down and observed the Druk Wangyal Chortens since I was too tired to do so the other day (forgive me, I came from that super tiring hike, remember? HAHA.)
I requested to pass by the popular weekend market, Centenary Farmer’s Market, in Thimphu to witness the local market scene in town.
After that, we drove to Paro for lunch and I was so happy to get a chance to mingle and befriend some locals. Our conversation revolved around their examination the next day 🙂 Did you know that English is the main language of instruction in schools so majority of the population can actually speak English really well.
We then proceeded with our long journey and decided to rest a bit upon reaching Chelela Pass, the highest motorable point in Bhutan at 3988 meters above sea level (that’s about 13,000 ft up high!) Sadly, it was very cloudy that day. My tourguide said that we can see the Himalayas from if the sky was a bit clear.
After 3 hours, we finally arrived in Haa Valley. This district was off limits to tourists for the longest time as Indian military presence is very high and sensitive. Behind those mountains is already China and according to some locals, people do walk for around 3 to 4 days to do illegal trading by the borders * shh *
Last stop for the day was to settle in the local Bhutanese house where I stayed over for the night. This was one of the highlights of my whole trip as I enjoyed observing and experiencing the local way of living. It was so sweet of them to prepare snacks and dinner for us and to cap the night off, I even got to experience a traditional herbal hot stone bath. Perfect way to end the day!
Archery- Lhakhang Nagpo- Lhakhang Karpo – Kila Gonepa Nunnery- Lunch- Drugyel Dzong- Kyichu Lhakhang- Rimping Dzong Paro- Hotel
Woke up to the sounds of a peaceful rural farm and started the day by playing Archery in the backyard of the house.
After having breakfast, we bid goodbye to the local family host and thanked them for their hospitality. We strolled around the peaceful distract and visited the Black and White Temple Duo: Lhakhang Nagpo and Karpo.
Next was a short hike up to Kila Gonepa Nunnery to see the Bhutanese nuns.
We finally arrived back in Paro and first stop was Drugyel Dzong. Unfortunately, it was still under construction so we just looked at it from below.
Next stop was Kyichu Lhakhang, built in 7thcentury. It is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Bhutan. This was also where they found the evidence of earliest Bhutanese history.
Last stop was the Dzong of Paro Town.
Finally settled in Gangtey Palace Hotel, a two hundred- year old real palace, which served as my home for 2 nights in Paro. Room was a bit scary at first but I eventually adjusted to it. Upside to this, I stayed out and got to enjoy the beautiful outdoor view of Paro Town.
Tiger’s Nest- National Museum of Bhutan- Hotel
The D-Day. The day I was waiting for has finally arrived- it’s time for me to finally see the Tiger’s Nest. I was initially very scared to do this hike as some of my friends who’ve been to Bhutan kept on telling me that it’s super scary, tiring, and would be the hardest hike out of all.
I got to thank my guide, Karma, for conditioning me well as by this time, I was already used to the altitude and the habit of hiking everyday HAHA. A big factor that helped a lot as well would be mother nature as I was lucky enough that the weather that day was favorable- not raining nor not too hot.
There’s an option for you to ride on a donkey for the first half to reach the mid-way cafeteria (will cost you around 800 Ngultrum) but that’s it, you need to continue walking from there and descend on foot. I understand those with health related issues and would want to see the monastery still but if you are healthy and able, I highly discourage riding the donkeys for three reasons: First, these are animals with lives and they’re suffering- that’s considered as animal abuse 🙁 Second, for some reasons, the horses are trained to walk along the edges of the trail. I don’t think that’s super safe, especially when it’s raining and when there’s presence of uncontrollable disturbances that might annoy the horses, which might cause them to lose their focus. Lastly, the hike to Tiger’s Nest is considered as pilgrimage and according to the locals, you’ll accumulate good merits for yourself if you get to the monastery on foot. If you were to ride the animal to shorten the journey, that would split your points and might even incur further demerits for letting an animal suffer along the way.
The visit to Tiger’s Nest will take you around a day. We started at 9:20am, stopped midway at the cafeteria for some refreshments, paused a lot in between to take photos, and arrived at the monastery by around 1pm.
Upon reaching the temple, security will be asking you to deposit all your bags, umbrellas, walking sticks, and even your phones. Like all the cases in any other temples in Bhutan, no phones are allowed inside the sacred temple (tip: you can take photos anywhere but for places that require you to take off your shoes, that serves as your cue/signal that photos are not allowed.)
Tiger’s Nest, also known as Paro Takstang,was constructed in 1692 in the cave where Guru Rinpoche first meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days, and 3 hours in the 8thcentury. He is credited to be the one who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan and is the tutelary deity of the country.
Each way is about 6 kilometers long with a lot of stone staircases to climb in between and an elevation gain of around 900 meters. I would say the biggest challenge for this hike was the steepness of inclination. WILD, my knees did hurt a bit after the hike. For non-pro hikers like me, always remember to walk sideways when descending.
I thought I wouldn’t be amazed seeing this monastery in person anymore as I’ve seen it thousand times in photos and videos but I still did. Entering the temple complex was another highlight one shouldn’t miss!
We stopped by the cafeteria on our way down to have late lunch and finally reached the base at around 4 in the afternoon.
To maximize the day, we proceeded to National Museum of Bhutan and was glad to have caught the museum at its last 10 minutes before closing. Though the main hall was under renovation (slated to reopen mid June this year), I was still able to browse through some of the well-preserved artifacts in the temporary set-up.
Spent the rest of the day writing my reflection on postcards while waiting for dinner with the Paro Town as my view from the hotel.
Paro Town- Airport
Started my last day in Bhutan by finishing writing on all the postcards I have to send. After breakfast, we headed to the town to drop them off and walked around to have a last glimpse of this beautiful place.
Strolled around and checked out their market, bought lemongrass ointment, had lunch, then proceeded to the airport right after.
Bhutan has long been part of my bucket list and I am SO glad I finally ticked this off. It definitely is a paradise everyone should visit at least once in your lifetime. Spending 8 days here made me understand why this has been dubbed as the “Happiest Country in the World”. They’re far from rich. In fact, they live their lives so simply, they don’t have big commercial structures. From my personal observation, what makes them truly happy are the following: They strictly respect their culture, customs, and traditions; They’re very rooted to their spirituality (90% of the Bhutanese is Buddhist); and lastly, they’re very contented people.
Thank you for the adventure, happiness, calmness, and most importantly, peace of mind that you’ve brought to my life, Bhutan. Definitely a #SingTravels I won’t ever forget.