Bhutan is one of the last true unspoiled countries on earth. It is a Himalayan Kingdom packed with stunning natural beauty, from lush-green rice paddies running alongside fast-flowing glacial rivers, to endless forested-mountains and the snow-capped peaks beyond. A luxury vacation to Bhutan offers a time-old Buddhist culture, stunning architecture and luxury boutique hotels throughout. A highlight of any vacation in Bhutan are the activities, and Asia Travel Expert, Jack got a lifetime’s worth of adventure of his recent trip there. Here are his top incredible experiences…
Bhutan has been on my bucket list for many years, yet I’ve never been quite sure why. Maybe it was because my colleagues had come back telling tales of its beauty, or maybe it’s the mysterious, magical element about it that has intrigued me. Sure, I knew there were some amazing temples, like the elusive Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and the people are meant to be so welcoming and the happiest on the planet (as they measure their countries well-being by GNH or Gross National Happiness). Don’t get me wrong, I was excited to go, but I’d seen temples before, I’d hiked up to sacred places and I’ve met lovely people all over the world.
Oh wow, how I was blown away, Bhutan is a completely different ball game, a country in a league of its own. It’s like a fairy-tale country. From the moment you land in the beautiful Paro Airport (yes, the airport itself is beautiful) to the time you sadly have to say goodbye, you are transported to another planet. To a place that’s stuck in the past, maintaining all of its natural and cultural beauty, but at the same time is sophisticated and is forward thinking in regard to its tourism.
There’s no Starbucks, McDonald’s or Walmart, in fact you won’t see a recognisable chain in the whole country! It’s a place that’s still so pure and void of western influence, where everyone smiles, and the worries of the outside world don’t apply. The hotels are luxurious, the guides are fantastic, and there’s so much to see and do.
There are now so many companies offering the same trips, it’s like a reading a script. After my brilliant trip I’ve got a few ideas of how to see some of the country’s real wonders in a different way. If you’re looking to get an active, off-the-beaten-track experience, there’s no better place than Bhutan.
The Bumdra Camp Hike & Tiger’s Nest
This isn’t for the fainthearted, but for the adventurous of you, those looking for something different. The accommodations are pretty basic, but you do get a proper bed to enjoy after a challenging ascent to the camp. It’s a 2-day, 1-night hike which has you camping at 3,800m on a site which boasts spectacular views down into the valley and across to the mountains beyond.
The beauty of this is it has you descending to Tiger’s Nest the second day, not walking up with the crowds. I woke early to enjoy sunrise, had a light breakfast then made my way down to Tiger’s Nest before anyone else. I had the place completely to myself. It was an incredibly special experience.
Nunnery & Cycle Down to Paro
You start this experience at Chele La Pass, a view point between Paro and the Haa Valley. From here, you’ll hike down to the Kila nunnery. The path is littered with prayer flags and the views of Mt. Jhomolhari (at 7,326 meters) are spectacular. I started this trip by heading towards a sky burial spot point and then I descended through meadows and forests to the Kila nunnery. Perched like the Tiger’s Nest along a cliff side, it houses around 30 nuns. The entire hike should take about 2 – 3 hours (depending on fitness). You will then come out at the road where mountain bikes waiting for you. You coast down the windy road toward Paro, and keep an eye out for the Bhutanese road signs, they are brilliant! The road you will be cycling through is all downhill and will take you through beautiful forests on both sides where you’ll see a variety of different flora & fauna. The cycling is about 35km should take about 2 hours!
Whitewater Rafting in Punakha
As soon as I found out we were in season for whitewater rafting, I made sure it was part of my itinerary. I’d only done it on a handful of occasions before and I absolutely loved it. This time was no different. You are dropped off upstream of the Pho Chu Father River. This expedition is led by experienced guides who’ll help you enjoy this experience safely.
You are on the raft for about an hour, covering about 16km of challenging but exhilarating river. The scenery is simply stunning. By being on the valley floor you benefit from breath-taking views of alpine scenery from a different perspective. At some points the rapids were quite aggressive, and we did get soaked to the bone, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience which I’d do again in a heartbeat. Near the end of the trip you’ll also calmly float past Punakha Dzong, Bhutan’s best known Dzong. It was amazing seeing it from this uninterrupted angle.
Breakfast Hike in Punakha to the Temple
This is a simple one, but well worth doing if you want one of the best views in Asia. You’ll need to fight the urge to stay in bed, so you can head to the lovely iron bridge to start your trek. You’ll walk through villages, paddy fields and forest until you reach the beautiful Yulley Namgyal Chorten. From here, you can enjoy this temple and 360-degree views of the Punakha valley from its roof terrace. This was probably my favorite spot in the all of Bhutan, especially the incredible views of the winding Mo Chhu river. After all that exercise it’s time to enjoy your breakfast in this serene setting before heading down to the valley floor.
Cycling in Gangtey
I love cycling, I try to at least get out on a bike in every country I visit. Out of all my experiences on two wheels across the globe this was my favorite. I was staying in the incredible Gangtey Lodge and the Manger there, Mark, is a very keen cyclist (he’s just competed Bhutan’s Tour of the Dragon). When he asked if I like to join him for a ‘quick cycle’. Without thinking I obliged. 30 minutes later, I was half way up a 4km ascent questioning what on earth I was thinking! A further 20 minutes went past and it all made sense. We had reached the top of the pass; my heart was racing but my eyes were enjoying the incredible views down either side of the valley. What followed was one of the best 15 minutes of my life. Free-wheeling from top to bottom, taking in my surroundings with the wind brushing through my hair, it was amazing. There’s also many other more peaceful, easier cycling routes to enjoy in the valley.