Paro Valley, Bhutan
This is the last in a series of posts recounting my 2012 trip to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
On the way back to Paro we stopped at an isolated monastery built in the 16th century by the Bhutanese guru who discovered iron ore. Once back in Paro I took a hot stone bath, a traditional Bhutanese treatment used to unwind and cleanse the soul. In a wooden, coffin-like tub, scented herbs are placed in tepid water. The patient (me) sits in the water, while at the other end of the tub, a bath mistress places rocks which have been heated up to around 400 degrees Celsius. They sizzle, gurgle and bubble, and the water gradually becomes hotter, creating the reverse effect of a bath at home (where the water gradually cools with you in it). There’s a wooden plank between your feet and the burning rocks, so no-one gets injured, and you sit there relaxing with the aromatic herbs until it becomes too hot to bear. It was absolute bliss – very, very relaxing, and I could barely stay awake for dinner afterwards.
The next morning we had a little time for sightseeing around the Paro valley again. Over the three short days I had spent in Bhutan my guides and I had became good friends, and decided to stay in touch. Just before driving to the airport to leave, we stood at the Paro monastery overlooking the pristine Paro valley. It was as if we were in another world. I asked my guides if they would like to travel abroad one day, to which they confidently replied “not really”. We then turned to the spectacular, perfect view before us. Could this be Shangri La?
When to go
Peak tourism period in Bhutan is from March to June, as the temperature climbs, and from September to November, after the monsoon recedes. July and August can be rainy, although not unpleasant, and December, January and February see the country covered in a blanket of snow – gorgeous, but very cold and some roads close.
Culture shock: 8/10
Language difficulty: 4/10
Quality of food: 8/10
Physical demand: 9/10
Advice and warnings
Bhutan is an incredibly safe place in which to travel – the dangers posed by altitude sickness, hiking fatigue and avalanche far outweigh any potential crime or political unrest. That said, do keep an eye on your belongings just in case – this might look like utopia, but you’re still on planet Earth.
Australians and Pakistanis need a visa in Bhutan, but it is pre-arranged by the travel agency and then collected at Paro airport on arrival. I used the excellent and very friendly Phuentshok Tours and Treks, and would happily recommend them – they organised everything! The price and processing of the visa is worked out on the basis of length of stay.
Indians may visit Bhutan and obtain a visa on arrival, provided that their passport has a further six months of validity.
Getting there and around
No foreign airline regularly flies to Bhutan – only Drukair, which flies to a bunch of regional ports.
Melbourne and Sydney
For Australians the easiest option is via Bangkok. Drukair’s Bangkok – Paro flight costs US$799 return, inclusive of taxes. This will be organised along with the tour package. Drukair doesn’t have interline agreements with any other airlines, so you’ll need to disembark from your flight to Bangkok, collect your baggage and re-check in for Drukair onwards to Bhutan. Be sure to leave enough time – a day or two preferably.
THAI flies to Bangkok at least once daily from each of Melbourne and Sydney. All THAI flights arrive and depart from Survanabhumi International Airport (Bangkok’s main airport).
Melbourne (from $1079 return)
Sydney (from $1096 return)
Discount airline Air Asia flies from Melbourne to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur from $513 return, while Sydney to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur is from $547 return. Note that Air Asia uses Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok, the older airport which is now popular with discount airlines. Discount airline Jetstar flies directly from Melbourne to Bangkok with fares starting from $563 return. They operate into the main Bangkok airport at Survarnabhumi.
Lahoris heading to Bhutan are best to transit through Kathmandu. Flights on Drukair from Kathmandu to Paro cost US$443 return. PIA flies from Lahore to Kathmandu via Karachi several times a week from PKR 59,067 return. Don’t forget to apply for a multiple entry Nepal visa from the Embassy of Nepal in Islamabad (from US$25).
All transport in Bhutan will be organised as part of the tour.