Not many have Bhutan in their travel list. Most have Paris, London, Santorini, Tokyo…but only a few are aware of the beauty that awaits them in the Land of the Thunder Dragon. It’s a shame really. I wish more people knew how this extraordinary little kingdom in the Himalayas can give them the most enriching travel experience ever. At least, that’s how I felt. Out of all the countries I’ve been to, none has impacted me as much as Bhutan.
First things first, how does one get to Bhutan? All tourists (excluding Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders) are required to obtain a visa and book their holiday through a Bhutanese tour operator or one of their international partners. This is in keeping with the Kingdom of Bhutan’s “High Value, Low Impact Tourism” policy to ensure that the country’s unique society, culture and environment are preserved. This means only a limited number of tourists enter the country at any one time, preventing Bhutan from being overwhelmed by mass tourism and thus altering its character–which in my opinion, is the reason why I fell so in love with the country in the first place. Never have I seen a stronger sense of tradition and culture so carefully preserved and appreciated in the modern times. No tourist traps here, just genuine experiences.
Prior to this trip, my sister and I did a lot of research as to which tour company we should go with. We finally decided on Amala Destinations, primarily because of all the good reviews we’ve read about them and the accommodating bespoke services they offer. Amala arranged a flexible 8-day itinerary for us that covered Thimphu, Paro, Phobijkha and Punakha, making sure all the sights and experiences we want included were accommodated and the stops we weren’t quite interested in were taken out. They then sent us a list of travel essentials and what to expect in Bhutan, our final itinerary and all our booked flights and hotels. We were all set!
After an overnight stay in Bangkok, off we went to Bhutan aboard Bhutan’s official royal airline, Drukair. And boy was our trip off to a good start! Just 2 rows before us sat one of the kingdom’s Queen Mothers, her daughter and her grandson. We didn’t realize at first that they were royalty but then we noticed how almost all the passengers passing them greeted and bowed to them so we put two and two together and boom! ALERT! ALERT! WE ARE IN THE PRESENCE OF ROYALTY. And so like a true tourist, I badly wanted to take a photo with the Queen Mother. I didn’t know if it was appropriate or not though so I decided to just watch from afar, like a creepy stalker. (I later found out that the Royal Family are actually super accommodating with these things. Sigh. Enter dark cloud of regret.)
Mid-flight, I managed to take my attention away from the Royal Family for a few minutes to look for the Himalayan mountains and possibly, Mount Everest. Amala Destinations told us we’d be flying over Mt. Everest on this flight so we strategically had ourselves seated on the left side of the plane. If you follow me on Instagram, you’d know our strategy was indeed successful. I was able to snap lots of photos of the snow-covered Mt Everest. (See my Instagram photo here. I’ll also post videos on my Facebook page in case you want to see more.)
With so much going on in our flight, our four-hour flight felt like a quick two hours. Before we knew it, we have already landed. The red carpet was being rolled out for the Royal Family (the video of which I’ll post on my Facebook page as well) and we were finally in the Kingdom of Bhutan! Weeee!
Our guide Mani together with our driver was already waiting for us at the airport. We wasted no time and immediately made our way to the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu. But not before passing by the Iron Chain Bridge and Tachog Lhakhang Dzong. I’ve always wanted to take photos on this famous bridge. It’s one of the many bridges made by Thangtong Gyalpo in the 14th century, made entirely of iron and chain links. Most of these bridges, much like this one, are still in use up to this day. Imagine how sturdy they must be! Of course we had to test it for ourselves too.
Mani was the first one to cross the bridge. He made it look so easy! When it was my turn, I was terrified! It felt like I was on a trampoline! Plus looking down and seeing the river underneath the iron chain links made me feel a bit dizzy. But I eventually gained my balance. Whew! What an experience!
By the time we got to Thimphu, first thing I saw was the iconic white-gloved policeman directing traffic in the middle of the city’s busiest intersection. Apparently, traffic lights were deemed too impersonal so the government decided to place a police station there to direct traffic. Little did they know it’ll become one of the most photographed curiosities in Bhutan. Being the tourist that I am, I quickly snapped my own photos of the policeman as well. Achievement unlocked.
We then made our way to Tashichoe Dzong, the kingdom’s main administrative and religious center that houses the largest monastery and the Throne Room of the King. Here I got my first taste of Bhutanese architecture: huge white-washed walls topped by red-and-gold, triple-tiered roofs. Everything was picture-perfect! I couldn’t stop posing at each and every door and window I saw. It was that beautiful. And to make our visit even better, we even witnessed the lowering of the flag ceremony. Unreal. I felt like I was transported to a different time. What a way to end our first day.