Bhutan. An unusual country.

Closed Countries: 10 Days in Bhutan

Ilya Kuznetsov is a photographer who loves to travel around Asia and Latin America and bring back stories and photos that he shares on his blog. In the future, he plans to write a book based on real-life events that he became a part of during his travels.

In October 2018, Ilya and his friends traveled to the Kingdom of Bhutan. Here is the story of a trip to one of the most closed and little-visited countries in the world, as well as the legends heard from the locals. A word to Ilia. The exchange rate of the local currency: € 1 = 80.85 Ngultrums.

One day a friend who was in Cambodia at the time called me and suggested we go to Tibet or Bhutan. At first it was just the two of us, but when my friends heard about the trip, they wanted to come. In the end there were 12 of us.

Everyone is attracted to mysteries and riddles. Going to see the conditional Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is one thing, but touching something most people will never see in their lives is quite another. I think that’s why so many people showed up for the trip, even though it wasn’t at all budget-friendly.

You can only get to Bhutan as part of a tour group. In any case, that was what I thought when I started organizing the trip. Since I didn’t want to be part of anyone else’s group, I made my own. We started to prepare for the trip two months in advance, so we wouldn’t end up without tickets. A trip to Bhutan can be arranged either through a local or a Russian travel agency. Naturally, the latter will also take an additional fee, so I contacted directly with Bhutanese companies, and chose the one that offered me the most favorable terms. All I had to do was to send the information of my group members and 100% of money by SWIFT-transfer and all I had to do was to get my entry permit to Bhutan (or to be more exact to send it to the post office). The visa was issued at the airport upon arrival.

It is worth mentioning that the trip to Bhutan will not be cheap. In the high season (spring, fall) is from $ 250 per day, in the low season from $ 200. We flew in high season, so the tour for 10 days for one person cost $ 2500. It included all meals three times daily, hotel (minimum – 3* hotel, but it was possible to pay extra for accommodation in hotels 4 or 5 stars), transportation, guide services. We also had to pay about $1000 for a flight from Moscow to Kathmandu to Paro and back with Air Arabia and Druk Air. You could have a connecting flight in Nepal or in India (Delhi) and then you would have to exit the transit area to get your luggage, so you would have to pay for the visa in both countries.

Bhutan is a country where it is imperative, in my opinion, to go with a guide, because it is a journey not only in space, but also in time. It is the guide who can be a guide and tell incredible legends and fairy tales (from our point of view), which are still part of everyday life of the local population. That is why all our visits to temples, monasteries and all kinds of Buddhist shrines were always accompanied by exciting stories about the distant past of this fabulous kingdom.

In fact, a trip to Bhutan can be planned in other ways, such as renting a car and driving around the country alone or going on a solo hike. All this can be arranged through a Bhutanese travel agency. But whichever travel option you choose, in any case you have to pay $200-250 per day. But as far as I’m concerned, a guided story is the best option for those coming to the country for the first time.

Many people claim that traveling in Bhutan is quite a boring experience because it doesn’t include many sights and activities. I wouldn’t say that’s true. We managed to get so much new information in one day that by 6pm, when all the activities from the travel agent were over, we were very happy to relax or discuss the day’s accumulated impressions.

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Thimphu (2 days).

We initially flew to Paro, 65 km from the capital, Thimphu. And here’s my first piece of advice to you: take your seats by the porthole on the port side. About half an hour before landing you can see the spectacular views of Everest, Chogori and other eight thousand meter peaks lost in the clouds.

Paro Airport is located about 2,300 meters above sea level and has only one runway. It is surrounded on all sides by mountains, some over 5,000 meters high, so this airport is considered one of the most difficult in the world to land. When we landed, our plane was the only one at the airport. We quickly went through passport control, got our luggage, and a guide and driver were already waiting for us at the exit.

On the way from Paro to the capital we stopped at Tamchog Lhakang Monastery, which is remarkable for its suspension bridge of wrought iron chains. In Thimphu we went out on our own to walk around the evening city: we stopped in one of the bars, sat, drank a beer and discussed the place we were in with the group. It was one of those amazing moments when the journey hasn’t even started and you realize that all the fun stuff is still waiting for you.

In the morning, while everyone was asleep, I went to the little temple near our hotel for the morning service (which Buddhists start at about 5 am). By the way, keep in mind that photography is strictly prohibited in Bhutanese monasteries and if you violate this prohibition, you may even be deported from the country.

“In the spacious halls of the monastery, monks in burgundy robes recited mantras to the accompaniment of a drum, a brass trumpet, and seashells.”

After breakfast, we went to Tango Gompa (gompa means “monastery” in Sanskrit), a half-hour drive from Thimphu on top of a forested hill. It takes about an hour to reach it. In the spacious halls of the monastery, monks in burgundy robes read mantras to the accompaniment of a drum, a brass trumpet and seashells. But most interesting of all was the history preserved by the place.

The monastery was built in the 17th century by Gyelsay Tenzin Rabgai, who…still lives where he did four centuries ago. It’s all about reincarnation, which Bhutan takes seriously. In the late 1990s, the fourth King of Bhutan was visiting the eastern part of his kingdom. Suddenly a boy ran out of the crowd of onlookers to greet him. The child came up to the king, grabbed his hand and told him that he was the one the country’s leader was looking for, the one who built the Tango Monastery. The king decided to put the boy to the test, which he passed with flying colors. So the king was convinced that he was indeed the reincarnation of Gyelsay Tenzin Rabgai, who lived 400 years ago.

After the monastery we went to the river, where a small table was set for us. Perhaps the food was simpler than in restaurants, but still tastier. And in the afternoon we went back to Thimphu and devoted the rest of the day to seeing the main sights of the city.

We visited the memorial stupa – Thimphu chorten (“chorten” means stupa). I had the impression that the whole town had gathered around it. Everyone wore national dress and traditional jewelry: beads of turquoise, amber, and red coral. People were holding rosaries and prayer mills. My eyes were blown away by the abundance of colorful characters! I could have taken the camera and photographed with my eyes closed – I am sure I would have gotten dozens of great shots! It is interesting that the Bhutanese people don’t ask for money for a photo, as they do in Nepal, but on the contrary, they react very happily to requests and then look at their images on the camera display with interest.

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After the monastery, we went to the open-air museum “Just Bhutan”, where we could get a closer look at the life and culture of Bhutanese. Frankly speaking, I was not very impressed.

And finally we visited the fortress Tashincho-dzong (“dzong” means “fortress”), located in the northern part of the city. In this fortress the Government of Bhutan works, so it is open to tourists only after 6 pm.

Punakha (1 day).

On the morning of the third day, we left the capital for the town of Punakha. On the way we stopped at the Dochu-La Pass, where the memorial complex of 108 small and one large stupa is located. The number 108 is often seen in the culture of Bhutan, Nepal, India and Tibet, and it is not accidental. This is the number of negative emotions a person must take control of before they can achieve enlightenment.

“It was as if we were in some unknown country lost among the Himalayan mountains.”

As we ascended the pass, a dense fog enveloped it, in which majestic pine trees, gilded-roofed stupas, and meditation caves were lost. It was as if we were in some unknown country lost in the Himalayan mountains.

There is also a legend about the Docha-La Pass: there used to be a trade route through it, but in the XV century, a diti (as they call demons in Bhutan) settled there and sent various diseases to people, destroyed livestock and in general made the already difficult road more and more difficult. To tame the dity, the locals called the kingdom-wide monk Drukpa Kunle, who knew how to exorcise the demons with the help of … his phallus. And so when the monk came to the pass fully armed, the diti was frightened of him, turned into a dog, and fled to one of the villages nearby. Drukpa Kunle found him anyway, defeated him, and turned him into a defender of Buddhism. At the spot where the monk defeated the demon, the Chimi Lhakang Temple is now built. Inside it is a 25-centimeter-long wooden penis, which, if the legends are to be believed, brings children to all childless women. To make the magic happen, it is enough, holding the magic phallus, to walk around the temple three times.

Of course, we visited this Chimi-Lhakang temple . And all who wished were able to walk around it three times in the arms of the sacred relic.

After the monastery we went to Punakha-dzong fortress, which is also connected with a very curious legend. One of the towers of the fortress kept a tiny statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, made of a grain of rice, which in the XVII century between Tibet and Bhutan was the reason for the war. It was because Zabrung Ngawang Namgyel (the reincarnation of the great Buddhist master Kuenken Pema Karpo) fled from Tibet to Bhutan and took the statue, which was sacred to all Tibetans, with him. In that short war, Bhutan won, and the sacred relic remained in the kingdom. Now access to the statue is closed not only to foreign tourists, but also to Bhutanese. The hall where it is kept, open to visitors only once a year.

Bumthang (2 days)

The drive to Bumthang took us a full day. Despite the fact that Bumthang is only about 200 km away, it took us almost 8 hours to drive over the rugged mountain road. This eastern region of Bhutan has a large concentration of significant Buddhist temples and monasteries. Locals believe that these areas are still inhabited by demons.

Tamshing lhakang is the main monastery, where we went the next day immediately after breakfast. It was founded in 1501 by Pema Lingpa, one of the great Buddhist teachers of the past. Bhutanese add the epithet “torten” to his name, which means “treasure seeker,” but of course, we are not talking about gold or money.

Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche, who is revered in Tibet perhaps more than the Buddha himself, during his stay in Bhutan hid in various caves, forests and lakes of that country all kinds of sacred relics and manuscripts containing secret knowledge. Only worthy men can find them. Pema Lingpa was one of them. He built the Tamshing Lhakang Monastery on the spot where Guru Rinpoche’s body imprint was found on a large stone. According to ancient tradition, the footprint appeared on the boulder after Guru Rinpoche leaned against it and meditated there before he fought another demon.

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The next morning we drove to the Tang River valley at an altitude of 3 km, and on the way we stopped at the “flaming” lake Mebarzo . It is not just a lake, but one of the main Buddhist shrines of Bhutan, which is visited by pilgrims from all over the country. In the fifteenth century, a revelation came to Pema Lingpa, already known to us. While walking in the woods, he met a stranger who gave him an ancient scroll, which said that at the bottom of the lake are hidden sacred relics. Taking a burning kerosene lamp in his hands, Pema Lingpa plunged into the water. When he came to the surface again, he still had the burning oil lamp, the box and the Buddha statue in his hands. This is why the lake is called “Blazing Lake.

Gangtei (1 day).

We spent the whole next day on the road. We had to drive about 190 km to Gangtei. It took us about 6 hours. On the way we stopped at Phobjikha Valley, which we hiked all the way to the village. By the way, it was in Gangtei that we had one of the coolest hotels with a wood stove in every room. We kindled it not so much for warmth as for our mood. Though it was already quite a common occurrence of frost in the mountains at that time of the year.

The next day we went to Paro, on the way looking at the monastery Gangtey-gompa, which is the only monastery of the Buddhist school of Nyingma in the western part of Bhutan. Bhutanese themselves emphasize this fact. The fact that the country has two schools of Buddhism: Drukpa Kagyu, which is characteristic of the western part of Bhutan, and Nyingma, most of whose adherents live in the east of the country.

Paro (1 day)

On our last day in the magical kingdom we went to the foot of a cliff, on top of which stands the hallmark of Bhutan – Taksang-lhkakang monastery or “Tigress’s Nest” . This is the very place for which people from all over the world come to this country. The monastery is located at an altitude of about 3000 meters. The ascent to it takes about two hours. This route is of medium complexity: you need at least some physical preparation. However, you can rent a horse to help you pass the part of the way – at the end you still have to walk. In the morning the horse owners will ask $100 per mare, but in the afternoon they may give you $20. So haggle.

By the way, this is where we encountered the most tourists. As we traveled through other parts of the country it seemed to me that we were almost the only foreigners in all of Bhutan. But the hustle and bustle of the approach to Tigress’s Nest brought us back to reality. However, for us, the introduction to the monastery was so welcome that we simply did not notice the other tourists.

The monastery was built in 1692 on the site of a cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated in the seventh century. According to legend, he flew here on the back of a tigress in order to defeat the demon living in the cave. After his victory he meditated in the cave for exactly three years, three months, three days and three hours. This cave is considered sacred. Most of the time the door leading to it remains sealed. Only once a year it is opened, and then many thousands of pilgrims line up on the approaches to the monastery. The monks, after graduating from a Buddhist university, spend the same time as Guru Rinpoche in the monastery. By the way, another legend is also devoted to him according to which when longshoremen tried to lift a statue of Guru Rinpoche into one of the temples of the monastery, they could only carry it halfway. It was too heavy and they decided to saw it to lift it up in pieces. Suddenly the statue started talking and asked the men to leave it where it was. The next morning, the statue was found at the door of the monastery.

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Bhutan. An unusual country.

1. On the southern slope of the Himalayas is an amazing country called Bhutan.

2. Bhutan is a small Asian country which lies between two huge and densely populated countries: China and India.

3.Many people do not even know about the existence of this country, there are hardly any tourists, because it is rarely glimpsed in the news bulletins and tourist booklets.

4.Bhutan was closed to the public until 1974.

5. The uniqueness of Bhutan is that it still preserves the traditional way of life, ancient traditions and many other things. All this makes this country truly unique.


6. Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, lies almost 2.5 kilometers above sea level. It is one of the highest altitude capitals in the world.

7. There are no traffic lights in Bhutan’s capital city, none at all.

8.The self-name of Bhutan is Druk Yul, which means “land of the dragon thunderer.”

9. In Bhutan, entrance to some nature reserves and religious centers is prohibited to tourists.

10. Bhutan has a ban on all religions except Buddhism.

11 Most of Bhutan’s population adheres to vegetarianism. After all, the main religion of Bhutan is Buddhism, which, in turn, does not approve of the killing of living beings.

12.The most popular ingredient in Bhutanese cuisine is red rice, a special highland species of these cereals.

13.Also the people of this country have a weakness for tea. Their way of making this beverage is very similar to the Mongolian way, where in addition to brew, salt, pepper and oil are added to the cup.

14. Unlike most other Asian countries, dairy products are widespread here.

15. There are a quarter of a million more people living in Voronezh than in all of Bhutan.

16. The form of government in Bhutan is monarchy. The head of state is the king. The next in importance is the Supreme Lama. The executive power here is represented by the Council of Ministers and the Royal Consultative Council. The National Assembly is in charge of the laws.

17. The 28-year-old king of Bhutan who ascended the throne in 2008 became the youngest monarch in the world.

18. Despite general poverty, there are no homeless vagrants in this country. In Bhutan, if for some reason a person has lost his home, the king will allocate land for free, so no one will be left without a corner.

19. Smoking is forbidden in Bhutan. The few tourists are not allowed, but you can’t smoke in public places, for example on the street, and you have to pay a separate fee to bring tobacco products into the country.

20. The Bhutanese government wanted so much to shield the culture from outside influences that it did not lift the ban on the Internet and television until 1999, when it was no longer possible to ignore the coming of the technological age.


21. The symbol of Bhutan is a large butterfly called “The Glory of Bhutan”.

22. Even though Bhutan is now open to tourists, it is still trying to preserve the identity of its people. It is forbidden by law to marry or be married to someone from another country.

23. Chemical fertilizers are forbidden in Bhutan. Also, there are no factories and industries in this country. They buy everything they need from neighboring India and China.

24.There is only one airline for the entire country. Flights by foreign carriers are also forbidden. So there are a lot of prohibitions.

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25. In Bhutan inheritance usually goes to the eldest daughter, not to the eldest son, as in most other countries. Feminists will like this rule.

26. Mountain climbing is also forbidden in Bhutan.

27. The local language, Dzongkhae, has no written form, so the locals use a related Tibetan language to write.

28. Prices for airline tickets, hotel rooms and all other tourist infrastructure in Bhutan are controlled by the government.

29. Rest here is not cheap, for a day a foreigner needs at least 200-250 dollars.

30. In Bhutan, education and medicine are completely free.

31. Crane in Bhutan is considered a sacred bird and you can go to jail for life for killing it.

32. There is no imported rice in Bhutan, but the local rice is red and rather hard. Only this variety of rice can grow at considerable altitude.

33. It is impossible to enter Bhutan without a special invitation, which can be issued by a Bhutanese tour operator. Independent travel to this country is impossible.

34. Bhutanese do not like to haggle. Here it is just not accepted. The prices here are always fixed and you can not bring them down, do not even try.

35. In Bhutan is still widespread “heavenly burial”. Many residents of the country adhere to the old Tibetan burial ritual, the essence of which is that the body of the deceased is taken to the mountains and fed to birds or wild animals.

36. It is forbidden to cut down forests in Bhutan. The authorities strictly enforce it. Every year the forests are expanded by planting new trees.

37. Since chemical fertilizers are also forbidden here, all Bhutanese products are considered organic.

38.Bhutan has a Ministry of Happiness. This structure was created in 2008. The census questionnaire even has a new column where people have to write down how happy they feel. The very policy of the state is aimed at increasing the population’s quality of life. Even the term GDP has been replaced by “gross national happiness.

39. The crime rate is low here. Such incidents are extremely rare in Bhutan. Because of the small size of the country, it is easier for the government to control the situation.

40. There is virtually no theft here, and in most villages and towns, people don’t even lock their doors at night.

41. Road traffic in Bhutan is not only not regulated by traffic lights, but even many of the road signs are drawn by hand.

42. There are painted houses here. Half a century ago, the King of Bhutan ordered the residents to decorate their houses. Since then, Bhutanese have taken great pleasure in decorating their homes. Some are so enthusiastic about it that their houses become as if they were gingerbread houses.

43.As a rule, the dwelling of a simple inhabitant consists of 3 floors, the first floor is reserved for the stable, the second for living and the third for storing hay.

44. Bhutan has a rather strict dress code. During daylight hours and in public, men wear traditional robes and women wear a special rectangular cloak, no less traditional.

45. Wearing only traditional clothing here is enshrined in law.

46.According to the color of their clothing, Bhutanese unmistakably determine the social status of their interlocutors.

47. The people of Bhutan are very hospitable in the masses. They will let a complete stranger into their home where he will be fed, drunk, and put to bed. They don’t take any money for that.

48. Bhutan is a wonderful country with wonderful and hospitable people. Do not be confused by the many rules and bans, because it’s nothing compared to the emotions that you get, traveling to this paradise. The only pity is that to visit this country is not so easy.

49. Bhutan is still not ready to let tourists uncontrolled. Foreigners can enter the country only as part of a group. Entry permit is issued only after proof of payment of all expenses.

50.There is only one travel company that handles all documents and only one airline in Bhutan.

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