Helpful tips on planning your trip to the last remaining ‘Shangri-La’ in the world, the country with the happiest people, one which has never been colonised in its history and most astonishingly, the only carbon-negative country on the planet.
Bhutan is a country whose name immediately brought an aura of mystery and intrigue whenever I heard it. People talked about it in such reverential tones – the last remaining ‘Shangri-La’ in the world, the country with the happiest people, one which has never been colonised in its history; a land where decisions are made primarily by impact on Gross National Happiness, where inheritance passes through the female rather than the male line, and most astonishingly, the only carbon-negative country on the planet. When it came to the point where I was earnestly looking for a country to go off-radar and disappear for a few weeks on a solo trip, the answer was immediately clear.
Having planned this trip for several weeks, I couldn’t wait to embrace the solace, tranquility and IT-free existence (sans 4G, WiFi, TV and phones). This beautiful kingdom of about 800,000 people nestled between two giants (India and China) exceeded any expectations I had. My trip was even more special because I chose to travel in January – an especially quiet period (being the coldest month of the year with temperatures routinely hovering below zero tends to deter tourists). So I was often the only guest staying at the lodges or inns – which made for an even more exclusive, ethereal experience.
The country’s limited infrastructure made journeys from one place to another quite slow, so I stayed within the central/western parts of the country for the two weeks that I was there (eastern Bhutan is even more isolated, unspoiled and pristine, and warrants a separate trip altogether). But this time was enough to give me a taste of how enjoyable a simple life could be. One filled with reading, hiking, exploring, napping, writing, and looking at the stars – a life that is increasingly rare in today’s world.
Flights and Visas
The two Bhutanese carriers (Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines) have a duopoly on the few existing air routes to Bhutan. The easiest international air hubs you can use to connect onto one of these flights would either be New Delhi or Bangkok. All international travellers (except Indian nationals) are required to obtain a visa before entering Bhutan – a process that a Bhutanese tour operator can help you with. Bhutan requires you to have prearranged an itinerary, with a local tour guide and driver accompanying you at all times. The daily spend cap imposed by the government on tourists is US$250 per day (as of Jan 2018) – Indians are exempt from this. To be clear, this isn’t a daily tax but rather a total amount that covers the cost of your food, accommodation, transfers, driver, tour guide and entry to attractions per day of your stay. Everyone who pays for a tour itinerary is essentially guaranteed a visa (which has a separate fee). It’s helpful to plan at least 6-8 weeks before departure to ensure you have enough time to sort out all of your documentation and visas.
Travelling around Bhutan
You’ll have your tour guide and driver accompanying you at all times, and so never really have the need to book any sort of transportation, which definitely lightens the load. Bear in mind that roads outside the main cities (Paro, Thimphu) tend to be very rocky and bumpy – so it takes a considerable amount of time to travel what might appear to be relatively modest distances. Be armed with carsickness tablets if you’re prone to feeling ill on a long and bumpy journey. But the scenery as you drive is mesmerising.
The Bhutanese are a very simple, humble people. They’re very content with what they have and I never saw a single Bhutanese person angry or stressed. They’re well-mannered and quiet (a stark difference to their Indian neighbours), very respectful, prefer not to talk while eating, take great pride in their environment and feel a strong sense of responsibility in protecting it for generations to come. Respect what they respect and you’ll fit in just fine. The official language of instruction in schools is English, so communication was never an issue.