Bhutan was one of our dream destinations and we wanted to visit there for quite some time. We first attempted to visit Bhutan in October 2018 and looked for flight tickets in January 2018 but guess what…they were sold out! The reason behind that is the fact that only two airlines fly into the Paro International airport from Kolkata and both do not even have daily flights. So, the demand for flight tickets is far greater than the supply. We get limited number of holidays due to our work commitments so going by land via Phuentsholing was not an option for us. After being disappointed, we decided that we must visit Bhutan in October 2019. And, in October 2018 we travelled to Majuli and Kaziranga in Assam instead.
To ensure we travel to Bhutan this time around, we kept a close track on the flights to book our seats as soon as the booking window opens. We quickly found out the dates that would be the most comfortable for us to travel in October 2019 and picked the week from October 2 to October 8 for our travel to Bhutan. The booking window for October 2019 flight tickets opened 11 months in advance, in November 2018. We did not waste any time and booked our tickets on the days the respective bookings opened. We booked our onward flight from Kolkata to Paro with Bhutan Airlines and our return flight from Paro to Kolkata was booked with Druk Air.
This was a record even for us; though we sometimes plan our trips 1 or 2 years in advance, we had never booked flight tickets almost a year in advance. I hope you will now understand how badly we wanted to go to Bhutan!
After booking our tickets, we started researching about Bhutan. This was also a first for us as we never book flight tickets before researching about a place. Upon researching about the country, there were a few points which made us come to a decision that it would be best to have a chat with a local living in Bhutan. Firstly, let me list out those points:
- Hotels: We usually use Booking.com or Agoda to book our accommodation both within and outside India. So, for Bhutan too we started looking for accommodation options in these two portals. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many properties in Bhutan listed out in these portals and those that were listed did not meet our requirements.
On our next step, we decided to search for hotels and homestays using Google and connect with them. But most of these accommodations asked for an advance as October is a peak season in Bhutan. We are okay with paying advances 3-4 months before the trip at the most. So, when we were asked to pay an advance about a year before the trip, we were a little hesitant.
- Transport: We wanted a car at disposal for the entire duration of the trip from October 2 to October 8.
- Permits: Since we were flying into Paro, we would have got our permit for Paro and Thimphu at the airport itself, but we needed separate permits for travelling to the other locations that we would decide upon. So, we thought it would be better if an agent deals with all the permits. That would save us time and hassle.
The Search for Help
We have been planning our Bhutan trip since January 2018 and had read about the length and breadth of the country. While we wanted to travel across the entire mountain kingdom, we only had a week available to us. Due to the scarcity of time we planned to limit this trip to western Bhutan. We picked Punakha and Haa along with Paro and Thimphu. We like planning our trips independently, so we wanted to get in touch with a tour operator, only a local one, who would just help us with the above points and not make major changes to the itinerary that we had already made.
Since we are active on Instagram, we started connecting with a few Bhutanese agencies on Instagram. Most of them felt too commercial and did not meet our criteria. Finally, we shortlisted one of them called ‘Greetings from Bhutan’. The owner of the agency was chatty and friendly, so we started discussing the trip with him. He also provided an itinerary and approximate costs based on the places we suggested to him. Everything was going okay and then suddenly he vanished! He used to go for a lot of difficult treks and went off the grid for long periods, so we thought that he must be on one of his treks. We ourselves got busy with our trip to Koh Kood and Koh Lipe, so we didn’t worry about it. After coming back from the Thailand trip, we messaged, texted and even called him, but did not get a response. He had also not posted for a while in Instagram. We were starting to worry about our trip and him. Hope he is okay because we have not yet heard anything from him.
After this experience, we started our hunt again and this time asked a popular instagrammer from Bhutan, ‘Inside Bhutan’ for recommendations. He gave us the contact of a tour operator in Bhutan called ‘Rinchen Ghakhil Adventures’. Even before we could contact them ourselves, Ngawang Dorji, the owner of the agency, connected with us through Instagram.
We started chatting with Ngawang almost every day in the 8 months prior to our trip. He suggested us a few places, but we had already decided on Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Haa, and asked him to stick to those. He was understanding of our needs and built an itinerary based on our recommendations.
Apart from sharing details about our trip and itinerary, Ngawang also shared what his daily life comprises of. He shared photos of his village, the festivals, the local cuisine and the places he visited. This regular sharing of photos did not only keep us engaged, but also increased our anticipation to visit Bhutan and experience all of these ourselves. We shared with him our travel photos regularly and chatted with him at least once every week. With this daily interaction, by the time we travelled, he was more friend than a tour operator.
Guide and Driver
After talking to Ngawang we realised that when you hire a car in Bhutan, the package includes a driver and guide. The day before we flew to Bhutan, Ngawang told us that his friend, Tashi, would be there to pick us up at the airport. When we landed at Paro, we were greeted with a khadar (traditional white scarf to welcome guests) by a young man. We asked him if he was Tashi. The young man responded that he was Thukten our guide and pointed to Tashi and said that he was our driver for the trip. We reached Thimphu and met Ngawang and his brother, Jamyang there. After chatting for a while, we realised that Tashi was Ngawang’s childhood friend. As for Thukten, he was in the same integrated DeSuung training with Ngawang.
Both Tashi and Thukten were amazing and made our trip through Bhutan very exciting. It always felt like we were traveling with friends chatting about politics, movies, food, culture and lot many things. The best part about them was their punctuality; during the seven days that we were travelling with Tashi and Thukten, not once did they come later than the time we discussed.
We would like to make a special mention about Thukten for motivating us all through the 10-hour long Paro Taktsang trek. More on which will be covered in a future blog.
Hotels and Homestays
We are very choosy about the properties that we stay in during our travels. We like staying at unique yet comfortable places. When we took the help of an agency for Bhutan, we were a little skeptical about what kind of places we would be staying. However, Ngawang asked us what kind of hotels we would prefer. We told him that we wanted to stay at decent hotels in Thimphu and Paro and would prefer to stay in homestays at Punakha and Haa. We also made a request to Ngawang that we would like to see pictures of the hotels and homestays, and the rooms that he would be reserving for us. Ngawang fulfilled all our requests and shared with us the names of the hotels and homestays that he recommended. He also shared with us the pictures of the rooms he would reserve for us.
We researched those hotels and homestays and really liked his choices. Only thing that we changed was the category of rooms in the hotels - Ngawang had selected the standard rooms for us but changed it to deluxe upon our request. As for the homestays, they were perfect and matched our requirements completely.
Here are brief descriptions of the hotels and homestays we stayed at while in Bhutan.
Thimphu – Ngawang selected Jambayang Resort for us in Thimphu. We were very happy with his choice. We chose to stay in the deluxe room and Ngawang reserved it for us. On our arrival, we realized that Jambayang Resort is located on the side of a hillock, beautifully overlooking the entire Thimphu City.
To our pleasant surprise, we were upgraded to a suite from the deluxe room that we had originally asked for. The best part about the suite, apart from all the comforts, was the view from the balcony. It overlooks the mountains and the entire Thimphu city.
Jambayang Resort is a beautiful property and the view from the suites and restaurant in breath-taking.
Punakha – We had decided to stay in a homestay at Punakha. Ngawang reserved us a room at Chimi Lhakhang Homestay. Honestly speaking, in the beginning when we crossed the homestay on our way to Chimi Lhakhang temple, it didn’t look too impressive from outside. Our guide, Thukten, was worried that we may not like it. However, once we reached the homestay after our trip to the temple, we got to see the backyard of the homestay, which also served as the entrance. It was beautiful, completely opposite to the front of the building. We later found that the people in the region follow fengshui and build the entrance of their homes in the direction which favours the health and prosperity of the family.
Our room was located on the first floor of the homestay and we had to climb a traditional Bhutanese ladder to get to the top. The climb was initially scary, but an experience of a lifetime! The room itself was comfortable, had an amazing view (especially in the early mornings right after the golden hour), was sparkling clean and offered all the amenities that one needs in an overnight stay. The washroom was outside the room in a common area as per Bhutanese culture. We were lucky that it was only us, Thukten and Tashi who were staying that night in the homestay, so we got the washroom to ourselves.
The best part about the homestay was the warmth of the hosts and the lip-smacking home-cooked food, more on which we will share in a future blog.
Haa – We also stayed at a homestay in Haa. Ngawang reserved a room for us at Ugyen Homestay. Ugyen’s farmhouse in Haa Valley is more than 200 years old and is built in the traditional Bhutanese style typically seen all over Bhutan. It is an amazing place to stay - see how locals live, experience Bhutanese culture, get a hot stone bath and interact with travellers from across the globe over some sumptuous dinner. This house belonged to the Ex District Governor (Ugyen’s uncle), which explains the grand nature of the architecture. After the ownership was transferred to Ugyen, he converted it into a homestay for travellers. This was one of the first places to stay in the village of Haa. Ugyen's sister, Chimi, also runs a homestay - which was originally Ugyen and Chimi's family home and is also over 100 years old.
Due to increased demand of tourists asking to stay at his homestay, Ugyen recently renovated his home to increase the capacity, which meant replacing the age-old wooden walls with concrete ones. While the rooms were comfortable, they lacked the warmth of a traditional wooden Bhutanese home, which we enjoyed at Punakha. The washrooms were outside the room as per Bhutanese culture. There is a separate toilet and shower area. Every room has their own personal toilet; however, two rooms share a shower area.
Paro – Ngawang had initially selected Olathang Resort for us in Paro. We were very happy with it but, unfortunately, it was sold out by the time Ngawang tried to make the reservations. So, the next resort that he showed us was Raven’s Nest. We were okay with the resort and decided to go ahead. Raven’s nest is located outside the main town of Paro but, very close to the Paro Takhtsang. While the resort hardly offered any views, it made it up with the comfort and amenities.
Again, to our pleasant surprise, we were upgraded to a suite. This was by far the most luxurious stay that we had in Bhutan. Something, we really needed after the gruelling trek to Paro Taktsang.
More on the hotels and homestays will be covered on our future blogs.
We covered 4 places in Bhutan from October 2 to October 8. This is what our basic itinerary looked like:
Day 1: Fly to Paro from Kolkata, drive to Thimphu, Thimphu sightseeing
Day 2: Thimphu sightseeing
Day 3: Thimphu to Punakha, Punakha sightseeing
Day 4: Punakha to Haa (via Thimphu)
Day 5: Haa sightseeing, Haa to Paro
Day 6: Hike to Paro Takhtsang
Day 7: Fly back to Kolkata from Paro
All the days and places in the itinerary will be described in detail in our future blogs.
The total approximate cost of the trip was Rs. / Nu. 1,75,000 for two persons.
We spent Rs. / Nu. 1,25,000 for flights, accommodation with breakfast, permits and car at disposal with driver and guide. Other meals, shopping and entry fees costed us an additional Rs. / Nu. 50,000. Since we are Indian citizens, we did not have to pay the minimum sustainable development fee, this will however change w.e.f. July 2020.
What was your experience in planning a trip to Bhutan?
Do let us know in the comments.
If you are visiting Bhutan and need any help booking hotels to stay in, looking for restaurant recommendations, itinerary suggestions or need to get connected to a local tour operator, you can get in touch with us and we will help you with the bookings.
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