Everything you ever wanted to know about Bhutan

We spoke to Louise Southerden, an award-winning adventure travel writer and photographer, about her recent trip to Bhutan. She gives us a fascinating insight into a country that many have not yet had the chance to experience.

After reading this, Bhutan is sure to make it onto your bucketlist. 

What were some of your expectations of Bhutan?
Like most people, I'd had Bhutan on my "list" for a long time before I finally got to visit. It has that once-in-a-lifetime sense about it, which can also make it seem a little out of reach; there's also a perception that it's expensive - which it isn't.

The thing to remember is that the "daily tariff" of $US250  is all-inclusive: it covers your accommodation, meals, transport, your guide and driver, and entry permits to temples and national parks.

It's easy to idealise Bhutan too, to imagine it to be a Buddhist paradise populated by enlightened beings, particularly because it was cut off from the rest of the world until the 1960s.

Did anything truly surprise you?
I felt pleasantly surprised to find that Bhutan isn’t a “Buddhist Disneyland” as I’d heard one writer call it; it’s a real, evolving place and still a developing country where most Bhutanese live hand-to-mouth in difficult conditions, but are sustained by a love of their king, trust in their government and their Buddhist faith.

In other words, it’s more impressive for being more down-to-earth than I’d imagined it might be. It’s also incredibly natural: for a small country, it has lots of forests, rivers and big, big mountains. 

What story were you most excited to come home and share with friends?
The thing I was most keen to tell people about when I got back wasn’t a specific experience or place but a general feeling of ease I felt travelling there. It’s often the small things that stay with me after a trip and on this one it was our driver, Tenzin, adding “la” to the end of whatever he said to me or my fellow travellers, as a gesture of respect: Thank you, la; you’re welcome, la; good morning, la. This small kindness sums up, for me, what it means to travel in Bhutan.

Tell us about the food.
The food in Bhutan wasn't a highlight of the trip; it wasn't bad, it just wasn't particularly memorable - but that could have been because we ate at tourist restaurants every day and at our hotels every night. I do remember that there were a lot of vegetarian dishes (which suits me) and that although the Bhutanese love chilli they kindly leave it on the side of dishes, to add as one wishes.

I also remember a guide telling me that Bhutanese people tend not to eat chocolates, lollies or desserts because they consider sweet food childish.

Any packing tips or other advice for travellers?

  • Warm clothes are a must, no matter what time of year you travel. The nights can get nippy, and you'll be crossing high passes it can be freezing even in summer (it's a good idea to dress in layers and bring a warm jacket)
  • Ear plugs, if you're a light sleeper - barking stray dogs, particularly in Thimphu, can be relentless
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Travel sickness medication, if you’re at all susceptible to motion sickness – the winding roads, combined with altitude, can make even the toughest stomach lurch
  • ATMs now accept international cards (they didn’t when I was there) but it's a good idea to bring cash in US or Australian dollars as backup
  • And leave your expectations at home; Bhutan is best experienced with an open mind and heart.

Did you bring home any souvenirs?
Yes, in Thimphu, the capital, I bought a beautiful wool blanket for about $US20 and a silk and cotton scarf; the textiles are beautiful in Bhutan. On a lighter note, I was tempted to bring home a phallus keyring (phalluses are considered sacred and lucky and even adorn the walls of many farmhouses) – but didn’t. It's also a great place to pick up Buddhist souvenirs such as prayer wheels and singing bowls.

Describe Bhutan in 5 words.
Peaceful, mountainous, devout, practical, kind.

What were your three highlights?
I loved the walk to the Tiger's Nest monastery - just the fact that you're spending half the day walking up a mountain, in Bhutan, with an ancient monastery as your destination, makes it a unique day hike, plus you're sharing the track with locals in national dress.

Another highlight was the all-day downhill bike ride from Chele La, a pass that's almost 4000 metres above sea level, stopping to visit a Buddhist nunnery along the way.

And third would be soaking in traditional Bhutanese hot-stone baths, where the water temperature is regulated by an attendant dropping fire-heated rocks into your tub (or adding cool water via a hose stuck through the wall of the bathroom!).

What time of year is best for travel?
March-May and September-November are the most popular months for travellers, because the climate is mildest then, but it’s becoming increasingly common to go in the "low" season, now called the "regular" season in a bid to boost tourism during winter (Dec-Feb) and summer (June-August). Daytime temperatures are about 20-24C all year, but night-time temps can get down to -4C in winter, 2C in spring and autumn, and 14C in summer.

Is there much to do for adventure/activity lovers?
With all its mountains and naturally fast-flowing rivers, Bhutan is an adventure destination waiting to happen. Trekking has been the main outdoor activity since the first trekkers pioneered tourism in the kingdom in the 1970s, but other options now include cycling trips, mountain biking on hiking trails (I met a tour guide in Bhutan who carried his bike up the Tiger's Nest track and biked down), whitewater rafting and kayaking. 

About the author: Louise Southerden is an award-winning, Sydney-based adventure travel writer and photographer whose work appears often in The Sydney Morning Herald and other publications. She also blogs about travelling and living sustainably and responsibly at No Impact Girl. In between travels, she can often be found in the sea - her most recent book is Surf's Up: The Girl's Guide to Surfing. You can also follow her on twitter

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Take a look at all our trips to Bhutan so you can experience it for yourself.

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